A Bittersweet End

The city of Sunset Hills, Mo., describes itself as “one of the most desirable communities in which to live and work in the St. Louis area.”[1] Never mind the fact that City officials teamed up with private developer Jonathan Browne of Novus Development Company to bulldoze Sunset Manor—destroying an entire neighborhood that was the most ethnically diverse and most affordable part of town.

The latest development in the story began in 2002 (after the City dropped a development proposal by the Sansone Group), when Novus quietly approached the City with plans to build a $165-million “Lifestyle” shopping center, offices and a hotel. City officials responded by pledging $62 million in Tax Increment Financing, and handing the private developer its governmental power of eminent domain to condemn and demolish more than 250 homes. Novus representatives visited residents who had no interest in selling their homes and no plans to move, threatening them with eminent domain and giving them five days to accept offers.[2]

Uprooted by a cloud of condemnation hanging over their neighborhood, hundreds of families reluctantly sold their homes under the threat of eminent domain and proceeded to purchase new homes. Many people who had lived in Sunset Manor since the 1940s expressly commented on the fact that their sales were made involuntarily—and that their decisions to sell their homes did not reflect support for the project.

Margaret Henneken, a resident of the community for half a century, said, “I’m 86 years old and I don’t want to move.”[3] She was one of many who sold solely and entirely because Novus had the power to seize her property by eminent domain, and to do so for a shopping center.[4]

Kathy Tripp, another longtime resident and Castle Coalition activist, said, “People were scared enough to sign the contract, but they did not sell their houses because they wanted to. It’s a harsh and sad analogy, but it was akin to having a policeman coming to the scene of a crime and telling a victim, ‘you did it, you must have wanted to do it.’”[5]

Tripp and other residents courageously chose to fight the City’s eminent domain abuse, and they formed a citizen’s group called the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab. Expanding on advice learned from the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide, activists went door-to-door spreading awareness of the project and circulating petitions. In April 2005, the group submitted a petition opposing eminent domain for private gain with signatures representing 1,000 households. The next month, citizens came back with two more petitions, calling for a referendum on the project—a powerful grassroots tool recommended by the Castle Coalition. Unfortunately, government officials denied the proposed referendum, hypocritically refusing to let citizens vote on a project that the government claimed a majority of residents supported.

In June 2005, opponents of the project also filed two lawsuits against the City seeking to stop the takings. Because some homeowners had sold their homes and immediately purchased new homes, this pitted victims of eminent domain abuse against one another. Some people who had already purchased new homes before technically selling their old ones blamed the hardworking folks who simply wanted to keep what they rightfully owned, for “holding up” the project.

With this variable added to the equation, what started as a difficult fight had escalated into an even more intricate challenge—but activists remained strong with their convictions and commitment to defend the beloved structures of brick and mortar they simply wanted to continue calling home.

“I defended my property,” said Tripp. “Just as they had a right to sign a contract, I had a right not to.”[6]

Remarkably, the tides changed in September 2005. The bank financing the acquisition of more than 200 homes withdrew its funding, and Novus proceeded to ask homeowners for extension after extension as the company unsuccessfully attempted to save its abusive project. City officials soon discovered—as activists suggested all along—that Novus did not have the money to pay for homes it had already purchased under the threat of condemnation.

In February 2006, the City finally scrapped its plans, leaving hundreds of hardworking families in limbo. Some residents continue their struggles to pay mortgages on two houses at once, and the vast majority of the community remains stuck in gutted homes that were perfectly fine when discussions of redevelopment began.

In fact, the bogus blight study that the City used to abuse eminent domain in the first place has become a self-fulfilling prophecy—and that’s where the worst tragedy lies.

Homeowners like Kelly Luitjens, who heeded the City’s advice and scrapped all raw materials from her house while simultaneously purchasing another home, said, “We didn’t ask for this, none of this…. We were happy in our house. Now we work like dogs to come home to a place that isn’t worth living in.”[7]

Or, as Tripp said, “Everyone buys their home to live in them and they don’t want to move. That’s why they buy homes. The biggest purchase of your whole life is not even sacred anymore and that’s a problem.”

Sunset Manor—and what it has become due to eminent domain abuse—should serve as a salient reminder that reform of eminent domain laws in Missouri and across the country are long overdue. The Castle Coalition continues to work with home and business owners nationwide who are facing condemnation, and with legislators who are carrying the torch to once again protect the fundamental right to keep what one already owns.

At a February 2006 City Council meeting, Alderman Robert Brockhaus (3rd Ward)—who supported the project initially—said that City officials had no way of knowing that Sunset Manor would end up the way it has.[8]

That could not be further from the truth. Sunset Manor did not become a tragedy. The use of eminent domain for private development sparked the fire, and it has continued to rage uncontrollably ever since.

Homeowners and Castle Coalition activists in Sunset Hills can rest assured that the Castle Coalition will continue to stand behind them and beside them as they carry on their noble quest to protect and improve their beloved neighborhood. The City has pledged to create a task force of residents, and it is only right to include people who opposed the development from the start. They’ve carried the torch since the beginning—and they’re not planning on stopping now.

“There are so many people who want to stay who are committed that aren’t going anywhere. We’re staying,” activist Phillis Hardy said. “Who’s to say they’re not going to bring in another developer? They’re certainly leaving the door open for that. Our focus is to keep our homes and get this neigh
borhood back on its feet.”

[1] See City of Sunset Hills website (available at: http://www.sunset-hills.com/index.html), Accessed on Feb. 16, 2006.

[2] Clay Barbour, “From Sunset Hills, a story of hollow homes and lives left in limbo,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 12, 2006; “Sunset Hills Aldermen officially halt retail development,” KSDK (available at: http://www.ksdk.com), Feb. 14, 2006.

[3] Phil Sutin, “Eminent domain is issue for some in Sunset Manor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2005.

[4] Rick Frese, “’Land Grab’ opponents refuse to back down,” The Times, July 29 – August 4, 2005.

[5] Kathy Tripp, Personal Interview conducted by Justin Gelfand, December 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Clay Barbour, “From Sunset Hills, a story of hollow homes and lives left in limbo,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 12, 2006.

[8] Clay Barbour, “Sunset Hills board kills troubled project, Shopping Center developer Novus misled the city, mayor says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 15, 2006, at B1.