December 1, 2007

By Scott Bullock

IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, right, speaks with Eleanor Miller, a resident of Sugar Creek, Mo., who could be forced from her home to make way for private development.

In the 1920s, Penelope Marth’s grandfather built several homes on her street in Sugar Creek, Mo., a small town located between Kansas City and Independence. She lives in one of the homes, the same one in which her mother was raised. Up the street from Penelope live two widows. Josie Webster, a charming lady struggling with health problems but still maintaining her upbeat spirit, has lived in her home for more than 20 years. Eleanor Miller raised five children in her immaculately maintained ranch home where she has lived for 48 years. Down the street from Penelope is Jerry McGinnis, a dump truck driver who enjoys restoring classic American cars in his large attached garage.

Penelope, Josie, Eleanor, Jerry and their neighbors may lose their cherished homes, though, because their town has made a deal with a private developer that would replace their block and several acres surrounding them with the Sugarland Center, a new, big-box retail complex.

Fortunately for these homeowners, a case currently before the Missouri Supreme Court, City of Arnold v. Tourkakis, could stop Sugar Creek from this abuse of eminent domain. The specific issue in the case is what type of city has the ability to use eminent domain in so-called blighted areas. The Missouri Constitution permits the use of eminent domain for the removal of blight, but limits that power to “constitutionally chartered” cities. Constitutionally chartered cities are basically the large cities in Missouri, such as Kansas City and St. Louis. This power was granted because, at the time of the approval of the blight provision in the 1940s, the concern was to engage in blight removal and “slum clearance” in large urban areas (often with disastrous results). Now, however, cities across the state, including small towns such as Arnold and Sugar Creek (third- and fourth-class cities, respectively, under Missouri law), are using eminent domain not because they are genuinely concerned about blight but because they want to gain the tax dollars generated by private commercial development.

IJ is active in both the case before the Missouri Supreme Court and the brewing controversy in Sugar Creek. We will file a brief in the Tourkakis case, and we are working with the homeowners in Sugar Creek to stop the threatened use of eminent domain. After visiting the neighborhood in October and meeting with the residents, we sent a letter to Sugar Creek putting them on notice that any attempt to condemn the homes in this area while the Tourkakis case is pending before the Supreme Court would subject the city to an immediate action for injunctive relief.

As Bill Maurer mentioned on page 3 of this newsletter, the Show-Me State is one of the worst abusers of eminent domain in the nation. A favorable decision in the Tourkakis case would end many of these abuses. The Sugar Creek residents’ homes—and the homes and small businesses of people across Missouri—hang in the balance.

Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.

Also in this issue

Victory For Minneapolis Taxi Entrepreneurs

Sign of the Times: IJ Defends Intertwined Rights of Property & Speech

Red Tape, Did You Know?

Dana Berliner:

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