It sounds like a modern-day David versus Goliath story. Residents in Ellisville, Mo., a town of 9,000 people, went up against Wal-Mart, one of the largest corporations in the world.
For years, city officials have been planning to lure Wal-Mart to Ellisville, about a half-hour away from St. Louis. Their most recent plan involved building a 150,000-square-foot Supercenter, which would have cost $50 million. A private developer could have received up to $15 million in tax incentives. Even more outrageously, Ellisville could have also authorized eminent domain to acquire property.
To make way for Wal-Mart, an entire apartment complex, Clarkchester Apartments, would have been demolished. That’s 100 homes. If the plan had gone through, 250 residents would have been forced to relocate.
But in October, after intense pressure from both grassroots activists and a new mayor, Wal-Mart announced it had “decided not to proceed” with the Ellisville store.
The city council later followed suit to better protect some of its residents from eminent domain abuse. On December 18, the Ellisville City Council passed a resolution unanimously that curbs the power of eminent domain.
The resolution bans condemning apartment complexes (like Clarkchester) and “multi-tenant dwellings” (i.e. three or more families living independently in the same building) for projects “where economic development is the sole purpose” and that have “no other public purpose.”
Mayor Adam Paul called the resolution “amazing:” “If you want to buy and develop property that exists, you can do it on your own dime.”
Paul based his political career on opposing this redevelopment plan. As he put it, he ran on “the simple message of ‘No Wal-Mart.’” But “there’s nothing wrong if Wal-Mart wanted to move in on its own dime,” he remarked in an interview with St. Louis magazine. With a $500 campaign budget, he won 44 percent of the vote in a four-way race in 2012.
The mayor further praised the resolution, saying residents would not “have to live in fear…of the threat of eminent domain for economic development.”
While the intention should be praised, the resolution’s phrasing creates an unfortunate loophole. Future elected officials can seize peoples’ homes simply by claiming a different justification than just economic development. In fact, the city council previously (and also unanimously) tried to restrict eminent domain for private gain back in 2005. But that resolution only applied to homes in a “residential district.” Since the Wal-Mart redevelopment plan would have taken place in a commercial district, residents there were not safe.
To truly protect residents, the Ellisville City Council should adopt language that will add some teeth. (Here’s a good place to start.)
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice