Sugar Creek tells homeowners it wants their land for new development: Kansas City MO Star, 7/7/07

By Megan Rolland

Charles and Cindy Webber have lived in the same house in Sugar Creek for 51 years, raising four boys and sticking through hard times in the town of 3,800 people.

This spring, the Webbers received a letter informing them that the city wanted to purchase their home at 515 Harris Ave. and sell the land for a 40-acre retail and housing project, Sugarland Center. If the project is approved, the developer will obtain 57 houses and 15 commercial buildings.

“They’ve known about this for 10 years, and we get a couple months of notification before they take our homes,” Cindy Webber said, expressing frustration over losing her house — as well as the $30,000 in home improvements made in the past three years.

Although the retired couple have fears of the unknown — primarily how much the city will pay for their house and where they will move — the Webbers agree that if it is for the public good, they will leave.

And that is where the Sugar Creek couple run smack into a continuing national debate, touched off in 2005 by a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the use of eminent domain for private developments that could provide greater economic benefits to a city. The opinion in Kelo v. City of New London explicitly leaves the regulation of such takings to individual states.

Within a year of the Kelo decision, 34 states — including Missouri and Kansas — had responded by passing legislation or ballot measures that in some way regulated eminent domain laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

This past year, five more states passed bills regulating the use of eminent domain, but the strength and scope of the reforms vary.

Many states included an exception to their statutes that allowed cities to turn private property over to a private entity if the property is considered blighted.

Missouri and Kansas included a “blight loophole,” but with key differences — and those differences in Missouri, critics say, open the way for cities to abuse the eminent domain process.

Kansas’ statute, which took effect last Sunday, requires blight determinations to be made on a property-by-property basis, and defines blight as “unsafe for occupation by humans.” Missouri’s exception allows for an entire neighborhood to be declared blighted if a “preponderance” of properties meets the definition.

A property is blighted in Missouri if by “age, obsolescence, inadequate or outmoded design, or physical deterioration have become economic and social liabilities, and that such conditions are conducive to ill health, transmission of disease, crime or inability to pay reasonable taxes.”

Which is why the Webbers and others are scratching their heads over the blight designations for homes that they think have been well kept.

States have tried to close the loophole by narrowing the definition of blight in two ways: by eliminating blight declarations by area or neighborhood and forcing cities to consider each property individually, or by redefining blight to mean an actual danger to the health or safety of people, said Larry Morandi, state policy research director for the National Conference of State Legislators.

For Mayor Stan Salva of Sugar Creek, the definition is clear: Sugarland would increase tax revenue and reinvigorate an ailing city. To him, it’s a clear-cut public use.

Homeowner Eleanor Miller, though, sees the plan as an infringement on her rights.

“There’s not a word to describe how you feel that they can take your home away from you,” said Miller, 70, who has owned her house in Sugar Creek for 48 years. She and a few other residents have said they wouldn’t sell their homes at any price — a stance that may trigger the city’s use of eminent domain.

Sugarland Center developer Jeff Peterson said he is confident that the city won’t need to resort to such a drastic step.

“I think we’re going to be able to work things out with these people,” he said, citing his previous experiences with reluctant homeowners.

Even if a city hasn’t filed any condemnations, the threat of eminent domain by itself is sometimes enough to force people out of their homes, said Jenifer Zeigler, an attorney for the Castle Coalition, a nonprofit organization that lobbies against the use of eminent domain for private development.

Such seizures, Zeigler said, violate Fifth Amendment property rights by misinterpreting the Constitution’s takings clause.

The institute worked, unsuccessfully, for a more explicit definition of blight under Missouri’s new law. With Missouri’s new standards, “the definition of blight has been so poorly written that almost any neighborhood qualifies,” she said.

Rep. Steve Hobbs, a Mexico, Mo., Republican, sponsored the eminent domain bill and said there was lengthy discussion about the blight inclusion. The law was deliberately written so that local communities could interpret blight at their own discretion, he said.

“Cities are very reluctant to use a broad definition of blight when dealing with economic issues,” Hobbs said, adding he thinks the law is working well.

Many residents in the Sugarland redevelopment area were surprised that their houses were defined as blighted in a study approved in April by Sugar Creek’s Tax Increment Financing Commission. The study was conducted to make the Sugarland project eligible for an estimated $13 million in TIF bond money, but could also apply to eminent domain proceedings.

The Webbers said their house was considered blighted because of a large pothole next to their driveway, where their son parks his truck.

“We tried to get the city to even it out,” Charles Webber said. “I blame Sugar Creek for it just as much as anyone.”

The blight study included images of junk and debris piles in the area, as well as photos of poor road conditions, cracked sidewalks, overgrown weeds and a clogged drainage ditch. It categorized 12 of the 57 residential units as sound, 23 as having minor deficiencies, 21 as deteriorating and one house as dilapidated. Of the 15 commercial structures, three were sound, eight had minor deficiencies and four were deteriorating. None was classified as dilapidated.

“This really, truly is blight in an area that is underutilized and underdeveloped,” Peterson said.

Without tax increment financing and eminent domain, he said, many areas would never be redeveloped and cities would miss out on opportunities to grow and improve.

Residents in the area of the Sugarland proposal are still waiting for appraisals conducted by realty professionals selected by the city.

The Sugar Creek Board of Aldermen is expected to vote on the Sugarland proposal this month. It calls for purchase of the land in August, demolition and site preparation through 2008 and the opening of the first retail store — an Associated Wholesale Grocers store — in April 2009.

“I think it’s really going to improve Sugar Creek,” Charles Webber said of the $42.3 million project. “I think it’d be foolish to fight it.”

Kansas City MO Star: http://www.kansascity.com