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Sunset Hills TIF panel eyes April 11 vote on Novus plan

March 30, 2005 - After listening to four hours of boos and cheers at a public hearing last week, the Sunset Hills Tax Increment Finance Commis-sion delayed a vote until Monday, April 11, on a request for $42 million in TIF assistance for a shopping center.

Novus Development Co. President John Browne wants to build a $163.9 million "lifestyle" shopping center with high-end shopping, a hotel and office space at Watson Road and Interstate 44 near South Lindbergh Boulevard. He wants the $42 million in TIF to guarantee an adequate rate of return, or profit.

Roughly 500 people flooded two large conference rooms at the Southwest Hol-iday Inn Viking last week to give support and opposition to the project. The project would raze about 255 homes in the Sunset Manor subdivision. Some residents want to leave. Others do not.

"We've elected to sell. A large number of us have elected to sell. That decision is well-reasoned," said Will Day, who has lived with his family in the subdivision for 17 years. "We look at it as a terrific opportunity for our family. In fact, if it were not for the offer from a developer like Novus, we would probably not be able to move to a nicer home."

"I served my country to defend my right to own property," said Eric Anthony, a single father with a son in the Lindbergh School District. "I fear this will destroy my son's life by forcing him to move to an inferior school district. I would be forced to move east. Does anybody want to move east or north?"

On the meeting agenda, the commission included a resolution to recommend the Board of Aldermen approve Browne's re-quest as submitted, but decided not to take a vote because of the vast amount of documents and written statements submitted at the March 21 public hearing.

The commission, which solely is a recommending body, initially could not agree on when to reconvene. With a 6-6 deadlock, the commission defeated a proposal to meet Monday, March 28. The six Sunset Hills appointees supported the Monday meeting day, but six appointees from St. Louis County, the Lindbergh School District and other taxing entities wanted more time to review documents.

Instead, the commission will consider the TIF at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 11, at the Sunset Hills City Hall, 3939 S. Lind-bergh Blvd.

City Attorney Bob Jones said the Board of Aldermen couldn't vote on Novus' proposal until April 26 and neither date disrupted that schedule.

Some residents, meanwhile, feared the project already is a done deal because the commission included a resolution recommending approval of the project on the meeting agenda for the public hearing.

"This looks like a done deal to me," Sunset Manor resident Mark Stobie said. "Well, wouldn't they put the possibility of it not passing (on the agenda)? It just seems fair to me."

"This is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy," attorney Paul Ferber said of the TIF Commission.

But Commission Chairman John Smith, a Ward 1 alderman, assured, "we have no preconceived position. We are not devoting anything here. We are here to listen."

And listen they did.

Bob Withington, an attorney representing 21 Sunset Manor homeowners, said Novus should pay higher purchase prices to offset the cost and burden of moving to another home. Paying fair market value of the homes does not justly compensate residents who could be forced from their homes, he said.

"The important thing is people's dignity, and this process of eminent domain tears away that fabric, people's dignity," David Wright said. "I don't see how people with more power and more connection can take the property of another person of less power ... (Aldermen) should make sure that this process does not happen at the cost of the citizens they were entrusted to protect."

"None of the commercial properties, and I've talked to all of them, want to sell," said Will Aschinger of Sunset Properties, which rents to businesses in the proposed TIF district. "If you allow eminent do-main, you wipe out the incentive for others to achieve and to become successful business owners.

"Is this the message Sunset Hills wants to send to the business owners?" he asked. "That if a bigger fish comes along, they will sell you out."

Many homeowners, however, have neglected renovation of their homes, fearing more developers would come along seeking eminent domain. They want to move to a home that doesn't have the constant pressure of buyout. The last developer seeking buyout of the subdivision came in 2002 and others came before.

"People that don't keep up their houses will keep not keeping up their houses," Mary Bumbicka said.

"Do we just let our houses fall down while we wait to see if someone else will come along and want to buy our property?" Jane Chickey asked.

"We got a great deal from Novus," Pam Ashcroft said. "I will not be able to sell property now, so please move forward so that our family's future is addressed to-night so that we can move forward with our lives."

"For me and my family, it will give me a great home and a little nest egg for retirement," Terry DeWitte said. "We have waited a very long time for this."

Nearly 75 percent of residents agreed with DeWitte by signing contracts to sell, Browne said, so the project should go forward.

But some said they signed under duress.

"I cried the whole time I was signing those papers," Carol Morrison said. "You're picking on the poor people and kicking them out."

Still, many homeowners haven't sold and don't intend to.

"The consideration is eminent domain," Browne said. "It does not appear that all purchases will be negotiated. If we cannot agree, there's a safety net. A commission appointed by a judge will determine the fair market value of your property. It may be the same as my offer. It may be more than my offer. It may be less than my offer. In either case, you will be fairly compensated for your property. That is the law. In no case would I want to see a person get less than what their property is worth, and in no case would the law allow that to happen."

But many speakers said eminent domain was meant for highways, hospitals and other public needs, not for the profit of private developers.

"Eminent domain was not meant to take my land and give it to John Browne, so he can get richer and I can get poorer," Ken Lancaster said.

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