Jane Carpenter, Ozark's Activist Leader

“It’s just a house…Home is wherever you make it.”[1]

That was the reaction of (now former) mayor of Ozark, Mo., Donna McQuay to residents’ objections to the plan to redevelop 47 acres of the city after the local redevelopment authority approved it in June 2006.

Two years earlier, voters in Ozark had approved an ordinance establishing a redevelopment authority thinking that it would help improve truly blighted areas of the city, specifically the dilapidated and crime-ridden Riverview Mobile Home Park. In May 2004, Ozark’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) surprisingly declared not only the mobile home park blighted but also the 42-acre neighborhood surrounding it.[2]

During the next two years, the city of Ozark held the threat of eminent domain over its citizens while city officials blamed residents for not being involved for the project—which did not have an official plan until June 2006.[3]

Jane Carpenter was one of the residents who opposed the city’s decision to blight her neighborhood. Carpenter attended all of the public meetings, and when she had the opportunity would simply tell her local officials the most simple, honest and effective message: “I do not want to sell my property.”[4]

Carpenter was not alone in wanting to keep her home, of course, but it took work to organize her fellow residents in the “blighted” neighborhood. Not used to the usual kind of rhetoric—“eminent is a last resort” and “blight is not a bad thing”—from local officials hoping to redevelop using eminent domain, Ozark residents believed their local officials meant what they said.

Carpenter knew better, however. In an effort to educate her neighbors, Carpenter helped organize the River Neighborhood Association and held “Open Porch Meetings” at her home. With a porch full of people, she would tell her neighbors about the latest news about the project, and together they would strategize to oppose the seizure of their beloved homes.

“People figured it out,” said Carpenter. “Once she [Mayor McQuay] was done with this project, she could blight me.”[5]

“All I did and even said was, ‘I want to keep my house.’”

As the election neared, Carpenter considered running against McQuay, if only to remove her from office, but Alderman Don Watt stepped in, campaigning directly against the use of eminent domain to redevelop the neighborhood.

Carpenter and her neighbors had covered the neighborhood with “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse” posters, but had taken them down after Watt entered the race. On the night of the last debate, she put them back up to remind every one of what many considered the key campaign issue.

“I knew nothing could make it any worse for me,” she said, describing her decision to put her signs up once again. “During that debate, [McQuay] said her plan was to clean out that area after she had said earlier that eminent domain had never happened.”

“People started to stand up to her and note her contradiction,” said Carpenter.[6]

In the end, Ozark residents voted in favor of Watt in the April 2007 election.

A month later, the Ozark Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance taking away the LCRA’s ability to use eminent domain for the redevelopment.[7]

Looking back upon the past three years, Carpenter says it was an exhausting process but is glad she never gave up. She also has advice for property owners currently facing the threat of eminent domain.

“No matter how depressed you might be and how bad it’s looking, keep on going,” she said. “Keep the issue alive and don’t give up hope.”[8]

[1] Didi Tang, “Panel accepts plan for Oxark blighted area,” Springfield News-Leader, June 23, 2006

[2] Didi Tang, “Ozark board declares old neighborhood blighted,” Springfield News-Leader, June 8, 2004

[3] Tang, June 23, 2006.

[4] Telephone interview with Jane Carpenter conducted by Chris Grodecki on June 19, 2007

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ozark, Mo., Ordinance No. 07-031 (May 7, 2007).

[8] Telephone interview with Jane Carpenter conducted by Chris Grodecki on June 19, 2007