St. Louis Agency Settles Case with Anti-Eminent Domain Activist

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 28, 2009

Arlington, Va.—In a victory for the right to protest governmental abuse, anti-eminent domain abuse activist Jim Roos yesterday settled his civil rights lawsuit against the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA).  The settlement came after the LCRA rescinded a 2007 resolution that denied Jim a permit to display a mural protesting the city’s abuse of its eminent domain power.  The LCRA’s executive director, Rodney Crim, also issued a letter apologizing to Jim and acknowledging that the “LCRA and its Board of Commissioners do not have the authority to issue or deny sign permits.”

The settlement follows an August 2008 decision of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals holding that even though the LCRA did not have any authority to grant or deny sign permits, its actions regarding the mural still subjected the agency to potential liability under federal civil rights laws.  With the parties having settled Jim’s suit against the LCRA, Jim and IJ will now seek a court decision regarding the City Board of Adjustment’s separate denial of a permit for the mural.  In that case, Jim is asking the U.S. District Court to declare that the BOA’s efforts to shut down his protest violate Jim’s free speech rights.

“I am glad that the LCRA suit is behind us,” Jim said after receiving the letter.  “It’s now full steam ahead in our case against the Board of Adjustment, which relied on an unconstitutional sign code in citing me for the mural.”

Jim’s saga began nearly a decade ago when St. Louis and its agencies began using eminent domain to take properties owned by his nonprofit, low-income housing ministry, Sanctuary in the Ordinary.  All told, the city took 24 of Sanctuary’s properties to make way for private development.

Fed up with the city’s actions, in March 2007, Jim had a powerful, highly visible mural painted on the side of one of Sanctuary’s buildings that read, “End Eminent Domain Abuse.”  But just weeks after the mural was completed, the city’s Division of Building and Inspection (B&I) cited Jim for violating the city’s sign code.  According to B&I, Jim needed a permit from the city before he could protest its abuse of the eminent domain power.

Jim promptly applied to B&I for a permit.  On May 17, 2007, however, the LCRA—one of the very agencies whose actions Jim was protesting—sent a letter explaining that the “sign permit application does not have LCRA approval.”  It was unclear why the permit application had been forwarded to the LCRA, which had no jurisdiction over signs permits.  Nevertheless, the letter explained that Jim could “contest this denial at either the 5/22 or 6/26 LCRA Board meeting.”

Following the LCRA’s instructions, Jim appeared before the LCRA Board of Commissioners in June 2007 to contest the LCRA’s “denial.”  At that meeting, the LCRA Board adopted a resolution affirming the denial.  Meanwhile, the Division of Building and Inspection issued a separate denial, which was affirmed by the city’s Board of Adjustment in July 2007.

Upset that his free speech rights were being interfered with, Jim filed a pair of civil rights lawsuits against the Board of Adjustment and the LCRA in the summer of 2007.  In March 2008, the city filed a counterclaim against Jim requesting that the court order removal of the mural.

A federal district court judge dismissed the case against the LCRA, reasoning that because the LCRA and its Board of Commissioners had no authority over sign permits, they could not be held liable.  But on August 29, 2008, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal and reinstated Jim’s claims, holding that it was “immaterial . . . that the LCRA had no authority to deny the . . . sign permit application because the LCRA actually took action to deny the permit.”

With it clearly established that the LCRA had no authority to deny sign permits and that it could be sued for interfering with Jim’s free speech rights, the parties pursued a settlement of Jim’s lawsuit against the LCRA and the city’s counterclaim against him.  The settlement agreement, executed on January 16, 2009, called for a letter of apology to Jim and a resolution from the LCRA’s Board of Commissioners rescinding its June 2007 resolution.

Rodney Crim, the LCRA’s executive director, sent the letter to Jim yesterday.  In it, he “apologize[d] . . . for actions of LCRA employees,” and acknowledged that the “LCRA and its Board of Commissioners do not have the authority to issue or deny sign permits, nor to compel any hearing regarding” them.  Also yesterday, the LCRA Board adopted a resolution rescinding its June 2007 resolution.

According to William Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which represents Jim in his lawsuits, “The LCRA’s actions resolve the lawsuit against them.  This outcome reinforces the 8th Circuit’s decision and means that when government oversteps its bounds and tries to exercise authority it doesn’t possess, it can be held to account.  That’s something every ordinary American should applaud.”

Meanwhile, Jim’s constitutional challenge to the Board of Adjustment’s separate denial is still pending in federal district court.  With the suit against the LCRA successfully concluded, IJ-WA Staff Attorney Michael Bindas vowed to continue the fight for Jim’s right to voice his opposition to the city’s eminent domain practices.  Bindas said, “Despite resolution of Jim’s dispute with the LCRA, a cloud still hangs over his free speech rights.  We will continue the fight to make clear that the city cannot use its unconstitutional sign code to suppress speech with which it disagrees—in this case, Jim’s public protest of the city’s violation of his property rights.”