Eminent domain tussle near Soulard: St Louis MO Post-Dispatch, 12/30/06

By Robert Patrick

St. Louis' redevelopment agency sued a convent, a saint, a nun and an elderly woman in a wheelchair who has a 999-year lease on Friday, seeking to use eminent domain to condemn a property in the Ice House District north of Soulard.

City officials hope the area will be a hip entertainment district one day, but first they have to remove stubborn landowners and tenants.

The suit, filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, says the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority has been unable to agree on a price for 1119-1127 South Broadway, owned by the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

The land and buildings have been leased for no rent to Salvatore and Mabel Inserra for a 999-year term, according to an appraisal supplied by the Inserras' lawyer, Francis X. Duda.

The Inserras have leased the 13,660-square-foot property since at least the early 1980s. Salvatore Inserra, a longtime Soulard Market produce seller, died at work in 1985 at age 60.

The suit also names property owners from centuries ago and their heirs, including John Mullanphy, said to be St. Louis' first millionaire, a nun and "Philipini Duchesne." The suit appears to be referring to St. Rose Phillipine Duchesne, who founded a school for the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a cabin in St. Charles in 1818, according to the Vatican. She died in 1852 and was canonized in 1988.

The lawyer who filed the suit, Alan Pratzel, said the defendants were based on the property's title records.

Representatives of the convent or Ice House District Redevelopment Co. LLC, the designated redeveloper, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 that cities can use eminent domain for economic development.

An outcry after the decision prompted new laws in Missouri and Illinois seeking to curb the practice, but a provision awarding a 50 percent bonus over fair market value doesn't apply. That applies only to those who have owned the property for more than 50 years, and for suits filed after Dec. 31, 2006.

The city assessor's office said the convent has owned the property since the 1880s.

"My poor aunt, I think, is being taken advantage of," said Mabel Inserra's nephew Mariano Favazza, who is the St. Louis circuit clerk. "But she's one of thousands being displaced from their property … on behalf of someone who has more friends and more power. It's just not right."

Pratzel said that the agency had bargained in good faith for the property and that the eminent domain process would establish fair market value.

Duda disagreed, saying there had been no good-faith attempt to reach an agreement. Mabel Inserra barely had time to hire a lawyer, said Duda, who was hired Thursday.

"We were told suddenly that the lawsuit would be filed this week," he said.

Duda said the filing may be an attempt to avoid the new eminent domain law.

St Louis MO Post-Dispatch: http://www.stltoday.com