For twenty years, Jim Roos owned a three-family home in the 3000 block of Lafayette in St. Louis.  It wasn’t a good neighborhood.  In fact, his rental property sat in the middle of what was practically a moonscape of burned out and collapsing buildings.  There were a few other homes still standing, but some of them were used as drug dealing bases.

Still, Roos and another nearby property owner soldiered on, making improvements to the houses they owned–he added a porch and fenced the backyard–and regularly contacting the police about the drug dealers.  A redevelopment plan was proposed, but it sat on the books for ten years.  Meanwhile, redevelopment did take hold on a small scale in that neighborhood–enough to tempt the people who’d gotten the original plan through the Board of Aldermen to perk up and take an interest.  Now that the neighborhood was becoming viable again, that developer wanted the vacant properties–and Roos’s house.

Roos battled city hall, even to picketing his alderman’s house.  To no avail.  He was forced to sell that property.  But the experience turned him into a crusader against eminent domain abuse.  He is part of a group called MEDAC, which is aiming to collect 250,000 signatures by the first week in May to get an initiative on the 2008 ballot for two constitutional amendments.  Those amendments would forbid taking property by eminent domain for any private use and would forbid using eminent domain to remove blight.

That word “blight” is like the word “many”.  How much is many?  Three?  Fifteen?  Fifty thousand?  What’s blight?  The law doesn’t define it.  And even if it did, why should that developer be allowed to take Roos’s un-blighted rental property after Jim had hung in through thick and thin for twenty years?

In fact, it used to be that no developer could take a person’s property by eminent domain in Missouri.  The Bill of Rights forbade it:  “Private property shall not be taken for private use with or without compensation unless by consent of the owner.”  That was in the good ole days.

But about fifty years ago, the Missouri Constitution was amended to read:  “Blighted, substandard or insanitary areas may be taken by eminent domain for redevelopment.”  The key word, “areas”, let the genie out of the bottle because it allowed developers not only to take property, but to take the good property along with the bad.  The genie’s been up to a lot of mischief since  that amendment pulled the cork on his bottle.

The debacle in Sunset Hills in 2004 brought the abuses to public attention.   The doom of those property owners was apparently sealed, even as they fought the buyout, by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005 (Suzette Kelo v. New London, CT), which ruled that it was constitutional to take Kelo’s property as part of a waterfront redevelopment project, even though the property was not blighted. Eventually, public outcry caused the developer in the Sunset Hills havoc to lose his financing.  But much of the damage could not be repaired.

The legislature took a stab at it last year, but lawmakers still allowed as how it was fine to take good property from an unwilling seller as long as 51 percent of the property in that area was “blighted.”  In that respect, the legislature failed to do what was needed.

They did forbid declaring rural areas blighted and taking property solely for economic development. Those two requirements have been helpful.  In fact, it was the requirement banning use of eminent domain solely for economic development that saved property owners in Clayton from being forced to sell to Centene.

Despite those improvements wrought by the ’06 law,  the folks at MEDAC learned that the legislative process is not the way to go if they want reform.  Only a constitutional amendment will protect Missouri’s property owners for certain.  So you’ll find them on weekends at community events seeking signatures. 

They’ll be at Francis Park near Chippewa and Hampton this Sunday afternoon for the “Art in the Park” event, and they’ll be at the Soulard Market Festival Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 6 and 7.  Anyone who wants more information can call Roos at 771-3509.