Lawyers, elected officials and St. Charles County residents described eminent domain as a redevelopment tool, a legal debate and a political buzz saw at a forum Monday night in the County Council chambers.
The forum was led by County Council members Cheryl Hibbeler and Doug Funderburk, who invited five panelists to discuss the hot-button issue. Elected officials from throughout the county then asked questions and presented views of what could become a county charter amendment proposal in the future.
Funderburk said the charter change, if it goes forward, could deal with guidelines for the use of eminent domain and definitions of blight. But he said he wants as much information and input as possible before any proposal goes forward.
"If anything, right now it's a white piece of paper," he said.
Thomas Cunningham, a lawyer who often represents local governments, said the 2005 Supreme Court decision allowing use of eminent domain for private development has elicited knee-jerk responses to ban all eminent domain. That response is similar to blaming a hammer for a carpenter's inferior work, he said.
Cunningham said local governments have lost the public's trust. It can be regained, he said, by having cities take the lead instead of developers leading cities. Cities should have clear, specific goals, he said, and, as much as possible, property owners should be brought in at the beginning of the process instead of being allowed three minutes to state their cases when the deal has been made.
Bob Swank, Wentzville's economic development director, said his city always has looked at eminent domain as a last resort. "The developers do not drive the bus in Wentzville," he said.
Richard Ward, CEO of Development Strategies Inc., another panelist, presented a list of projects, primarily in St. Louis and St. Louis County, that have been completed using eminent domain or with the possibility of using it. He also presented a list of projects that have not been successful.
Bob Denlow, a lawyer who has represented people whose property has been condemned or taken from them through eminent domain, said eminent domain law does not compensate property owners for all their losses. Specifically, he said, businesses are not compensated for loss of business or the cost of moving.
Wentzville Mayor Paul Lambi and Dardenne Prairie Mayor Pam Fogarty said they were wary of a charter amendment on eminent domain, saying cities may address the issue better.
Residents will have the chance to air their views on the matter at another public meeting. It had been scheduled for Aug. 1 but may be changed to Aug. 3. Funderburk said more information would be available today.
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