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There’s this little two block area called Bohemian Hill–as in, one hill, it’s so small–tucked between Soulard and Laclede Square, that nobody really cares about and that the city of St. Louis has threatened to take over by eminent domain. Actually, I should have said almost nobody cares about it. Jim Roos does.

Here’s the thing, though. The right nobody, fighting city hall, can raise such a stink sometimes that city hall relents. Roos, a longtime property rights activist, has protested eminent domain abuses statewide, he has hounded the city of St. Louis about its particular abuses, and he has encouraged the residents of Bohemian Hill to join him in protest. He got so fed up, in fact, that he had the mural at left painted on one of the properties owned by his non-profit corporation, a property that the city had said it was going to take.

And now, St. Louis has backed off. For the time being, at least, the city has retracted its intention to take any of the property on that particular Hill–though it hasn’t removed the official “blighted” designation, so the gate is still open.    

The city is peeved with Roos, though. That sign is in your face as you travel down the highway from South St. Louis to downtown. Officials hate that mural and have waged war against it. Last April, citing three complaints from neighboring communities about the sign, they told him it was illegal and would have to be removed. At 363 square feet, it is ten times bigger than what’s allowed. The city could have granted him an exemption, as it routinely does for businesses. In fact, on the day the city cited Roos, it granted Laclede Gas permission to put up a 1,000 square foot sign on its building. Roos contends, therefore, that it’s the content of the sign that’s causing the trouble, not its size.

So, instead of painting over the mural, he got legal help from the libertarian advocacy group, Institute for Justice, and took his case to federal court, claiming that it was art and furthermore that it was protected by the free speech provision of the Constitution.

In May, the city sent Bohemian Hill residents letters saying that it no longer intended to take their properties. But officials are still annoyed about the sign. When Roos had lights put up to illuminate it at night, they cited him for not using a licensed contractor. He turned off the lights, but then the city came after him for having abandoned lights and wiring on the property. He has thirty days to decide whether to raise the $1017 to rewire the lights or whether to take down the lights and wiring.

He put the mural up in frustration after spending years trying to get Missouri to change its eminent domain legislation. He’s been fighting that fight because of his profession: Roos is a seminary graduate who decided that preaching wasn’t his forte and that helping poor people find affordable, decent housing was going to be his ministry.

To that end, he heads two businesses. One is a for profit corporation that manages city properties for investors who want to own rental property. The corporation, Neighborhood Enterprises, makes the day to day decisions about what kind of rehabbing to do on the properties and finds suitable, reliable tenants. The other business, Roos’s non-profit corporation, Sanctuary in the Ordinary, owns buildings that it buys from donations.

When Neighborhood Enterprises lost one third of all the properties it managed because of eminent domain seizures in McRee Town three or four years ago, Roos began actively campaigning to get the law changed. But in 2006, when the law was changed, it did little to protect urban areas. Sure, it said that farmland couldn’t be designated as “blighted”, but that left the possibility wide open for developers to get cities to declare urban areas blighted. Indeed, eight days after that law passed, he got a letter informing him that the city intended to take the Bohemian Hill property owned by his non-profit corporation, Sanctuary in the Ordinary. That’s when he decided that mural was going up.

Before those letters came, Alderman Phyllis Young had told Bohemian Hill residents that they had nothing to worry about, that the city did not plan to use eminent domain in their neighborhood. Then the letters saying otherwise arrived. When residents questioned Young about why this was happening, she said that “The project just got bigger than we expected.” What? It grew like Topsy’s hair, willy nilly and unstoppable? And forced Alderman Young to renege on her promises to her constituents? The fickle fate that those residents faced is, says Roos, typical. When taking property by eminent domain and giving it to developers is allowed, there’s no knowing how much will satisfy them. Too often, they just keep taking.

Roos points out that developers seldom take property in truly blighted areas. Oh no. They want the property in areas that are coming back to life on their own. The proposed Bohemian Hill takeover, for example, was to be an extension of a planned shopping mall. The property for that mall as it was originally planned had already been bought up under threat of seizure by eminent domain. But the Soulard, Laclede Square area isn’t blighted anymore, as any St. Louisan can tell you. It had come back on its own without those developers, and some of the property in that part of the city is quite expensive.

Jim Roos feels quiet outrage over such injustice, so he has made a federal case out of it–literally. The case about his mural will be tried December 1st.

Roos is also an active member of MEDAC, a group working to get a constitutional amendment on this fall’s ballot to prohibit taking private property and giving it to developers. Be on the lookout this spring for folks collecting the 240,000 signatures they hope to get. Better yet, help them collect the sigs: contact Roos and MEDAC at 314-771-3509 or at neinc@sbcgloblal.net

Correction: Bohemian Hill is between Soulard and Lafayette Square, not Laclede Square.