Eminent domain's electoral fallout: St Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, 3/31/06

By Clay Barbour

The U.S. Supreme Court's controversial eminent domain ruling came down almost one year ago. The fallout from that ruling - at least for some local politicians - could come down Tuesday.

In June, justices affirmed government's right to take private property for economic development. The ruling spurred renewed interest in the practice, which has long been used to fund city budgets and revitalize urban areas.

Officials say the use of eminent domain will figure prominently in elections Tuesday in communities such as Sunset Hills, Clayton and Manchester.

"It's the hot-button issue, that's for sure," said Sunset Hills Alderman Robert Brockhaus. "This election is starting to seem more like a referendum on eminent domain than it is an actual judgment on a candidate's job performance."

Brockhaus is one of four Sunset Hills aldermen running for re-election. Sunset Hills Mayor Jim Hobbs is also up for re-election. All five incumbents are facing stiff opposition from candidates running on an anti-eminent domain platform.

It seems to be a popular approach for challengers across the county, especially in communities where development deals created controversy.

In Manchester, officials approved the use of eminent domain for the $131.5 million Manchester Highlands shopping center.

There, Alderman Asa Wilson and former alderman Joe Mastroianni are vying for mayor. Incumbent Larry Miles is stepping down.

Wilson has made eminent domain a major issue of the campaign. He opposes using it for economic development. Mastroianni has said he favors restrained use of the tool.

"This is an important issue for the city," Wilson said. "There has been way too much abuse of eminent domain, and I think most of the people here would like to see that stop."

There seems to be a similar sentiment in Clayton, where earlier this year officials approved the city's first use of eminent domain.

The measure was made to help clear the way for a $190 million development project on Forsyth Boulevard. Headed by the Centene Corp., a giant in the health care industry, the project would include a 16-story headquarters building and a 15-story office building that would have significant retail space.

It would also displace several existing businesses, an issue that led two candidates to run for the Clayton Board of Aldermen.

Clayton lawyer Bret Rich is running for the seat being vacated by Jill Belsky. He faces write-in candidate Michelle Harris.

Another Clayton lawyer, Cynthia Holmes, is running against Alderman Judy Goodman. According to Holmes, eminent domain should never be used to help one business over another. According to Goodman, economic realities sometimes force a city's hand.

"No one likes to use eminent domain," Goodman said. "Sometimes you have to, for the good of everyone."

Clayton Alderman Beverly Wagner, who is not up for re-election this year, said she has been amazed by the anger eminent domain has engendered. She has heard from many people, a lot of them upset over the city's use of the controversial development tool.

"And people who are against it are very, very against it," she said.

No one knows this better than officials in Sunset Hills.

In a time when many cities struggle to make ends meet, Sunset Hills is the picture of prosperity. The city has the 13th-lowest property tax rate in St. Louis County, spends millions on public parks and roads and has $4.5 million in the bank for any unforeseen rainy days.

But spend an afternoon in town and you will hear again and again that city leaders have done a poor job. "It's maddening, maddening," Mayor Hobbs said. "It's like everything we've ever done right disappeared the moment the Novus deal fell through."

Sunset Hills had a very public, very embarrassing eminent domain failure. The city axed plans in February for a $184 million, high-end shopping center in the Sunset Manor neighborhood, located between Interstate 44 and Watson Road.

The deal fell through after the developer, the Novus Development Co., had trouble securing financing. The fallout has been economically devastating for many residents of Sunset Manor and politically devastating for the city's leaders.

Five anti-eminent domain candidates are vying for the board: John Hunzeker for mayor and Franklin Hardy, Thomas Hrastich, Lynn Flowers and Frank Gregory for the board.

And according to several sitting aldermen, the challengers have a better-than-average chance at winning.

"It's going to be real close," said Alderman John Tipton. "A lot of people are upset."

Tipton, Hobbs and Brockhaus have been spending a lot of time lately going door-to-door. They said the people they've spoken to seem supportive.

"But they could also decide to just run us out," Brockhaus said, "which would be a shame, I think, because we have done a lot of good for this town."

But according to Thomas Hrastich, past success is sometimes not enough.

"The Novus deal was such a big mistake that someone has to answer for it," he said.

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