Changes may be made to eminent domain laws
August 03, 2005 - For those hoping for change in the state's eminent domain laws, the next legislative session looks promising.
Legislators representing south county said they plan to introduce bills that would change the process of eminent domain, while Gov. Matt Blunt recently formed an Eminent Domain Task Force that will study the use of eminent do-main in the state and make recommendations to change state law.
During a rally sponsored by the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab citizens' group last week, Rep. Jim Avery, R-Crestwood, and Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis said they plan to introduce legislation that would give fourth-class cities such as Sunset Hills the authority for initiative and referendum so that citizens could vote on the use of eminent domain.
The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen recently granted the Novus Development Co. the authority to use eminent domain to help construct a $165.2 million shopping center at Interstate 44 and Watson Road. The project will raze more than 250 homes and several businesses in the Sunset Manor subdivision.
Aldermen in May named Novus the developer, entered into a redevelopment agreement with the company and approved $42 million in tax-increment-financing and $20 million in transportation development district reimbursements.
Members of the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab group have sought a public vote on two enabling ordinances for the project, but city officials say that state law does not provide for initiative, referendum and recall elections for fourth-class cities such as Sunset Hills.
"If people can gather enough petitions, which is what the folks in Sunset Hills did, I think they should have the right to have a public vote," Avery told the Call.
"I was quite surprised to find out that fourth-class cities are not treated like, first-, second-, third-class cities to introduce initiative and referendum," Kennedy told the Call. "I think it's blatantly unfair ... We're a democracy where people do have a voice, and they should have a voice to the full extent of the Constitution and the law and should be treated equal, and fourth-class cities truly aren't in this case."
Noting that he and his staff are researching existing eminent domain statutes to prepare the bill, Kennedy said he hopes that his bill or a similar bill will be well crafted and that legislators don't rush into approving a flawed bill.
"Sometimes when you pass legislation, you have to go back and fix it," Kennedy said. "I know that it's being closely looked at, and I hope that a good piece of legislation is passed and not something that doesn't stand up in court and something that doesn't really fix the problem.''
Rep. Jim Lembke, who also attended the July 25 rally, said at a July 18 town-hall meeting that he would like to see changes made to the state statute, such as eliminating the use of eminent domain for private use and strengthening the definition of blight.
Blunt created the Eminent Domain Task Force on June 28 in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against homeowners in Connecticut who had fought to keep their property from being condemned for a private developer's commercial use.
The governor's executive order states, "The court's decision greatly expands the right of government to seize private property — a home, farm or small business — and give it to other private persons or entities just because they can generate greater tax and other revenues ... in its decision the court expressly provides that nothing in the decision precludes any state from placing further restrictions on the exercise of eminent domain ..."
The task force will conduct a review of state and federal eminent domain laws, study the use of eminent domain and develop a definition of "public use" that allows the government to use eminent domain "when there is a clear and direct public purpose while at the same time ensuring that individual property rights are preserved," according to the executive order.
The task force also will recommend eminent domain legislation for the General Assembly's consideration. The task force will submit the final report to the governor Dec. 31, just before the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 4.
The force includes Gerald T. Carmody, an attorney with Carmody, MacDonald, the law firm representing several Sunset Manor residents in two lawsuits against the city of Sunset Hills in an eminent domain battle. The only other member from St. Louis is Chris Goodson, the president and owner of the Goodson Co. and Goodco.
Other members include Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, who served on the House Interim Committee on Eminent Domain in 2004; Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles; Leslie Holloway of Jefferson City; Lewis Mills of Jefferson City; Spencer Thomson of Kansas City; Howard Wright of Springfield and Terry Jarrett, Blunt's general counsel.
This is not the first time the state's eminent domain laws have been examined. In January 2004, the House Interim Committee on Eminent Domain released a report that examined the use of the eminent domain in the state and recommended changes. The committee outlined several options, including requiring the condemner to provide property owners with a written copy of their rights at first meeting, providing attorneys to land owners, requiring condemners to pay half of the attorney fees of property owners forced to litigate and allowing a landowner to reacquire their property at the condemnation price after 10 years if the land isn't used for the purpose for which is was acquired.
Rep. Merrill Townley, R-Chamois, who served as committee chairman, introduced a bill that reflected many of these recommendations that January. The bill was perfected four months later, but on April 21, 2004, the bill was laid over and it has not been considered since then.
Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, who served on the committee, said that bill mostly concerned rural areas, but there were several recommendations that he said he would still like to see implemented.
"I'm anxious to see what the commission that the governor created will come up with, and they are supposed to have a report to the governor by the end of the year, and I'm sure Gov. Blunt will have his own bill that someone in the House will sponsor that will reflect the findings of the commission (task force)," Bivins said. "Hopefully they will take some of the suggestions of the bill we proposed, but didn't get passed."