15 Businesses, 56 Homes Blighted in Sugar Creek, Missouri

Penelope Marth lives in a home, along with her parents, on South Harris in Sugar Creek, Mo., a small town of 8,900 outside of Kansas City. It is a home that her grandfather built decades ago, and one city officials would like to see disappear—along with 56 other homes and 15 businesses, or about 5 percent of current residents.

In May 2007, property owners in this quaint neighborhood of middleclass homes received letters from Sugar Creek telling them that the city would be purchasing their property and if they did not agree to sell, the city would forcibly acquire their properties by eminent domain.

Replacing the Marths and their other long-established neighbors would be a shopping center, including a supermarket and a yet to be determined anchor—most likely one of the big box variety. Even though the city does not yet own the properties, it has already entered into a lease agreement with a supermarket chain for the so-called Sugarland development.[1]

The reason for the new development is predictable: the city wants more tax revenue, which the mayor sees as a public use.[2]

To cover the estimated $42 million cost of the project, the city declared the Marths’ neighborhood “blighted” in order to establish a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF). Under Missouri law, a city can invoke eminent domain only if an area is deemed blighted.

Unfortunately for Missouri property owners, the definitions of blight are so broad that successful businesses like those in Clayton, Mo., or Homer Tourkakis’ dentist office in Arnold, both in suburban St. Louis, can be declared blighted, even though they are perfectly fine, well-maintained properties.

The planner hired by the city to conduct the blight study admitted to a local paper as much. “Everybody has their own conceptions of what blight looks like…but frequently that’s not the same as what the state statute provides.”[3] Blight is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

In the case of Sugar Creek, the planner cited potholes, curbs in need of new paint, cracked sidewalks, and utility lines covered in brush—in other words, the neighborhood is “blighted” because the city has neglected its responsibility for the upkeep of its own infrastructure. One resident, who tried to get the city to fix a pothole next to his driveway, was ignored.[4] Additionally, if residents of the neighborhood tried to fix those problems, they would violate the law, according to IJ attorney Scott Bullock.

According to comments city officials made over the summer, Sugar Creek had hoped to start construction on the development by the end of this year. So far, the mere threat of eminent domain has been enough to scare at least 17 property owners into accepting the city’s offers.[5]

According to Marth, homeowners were told in March 2007 that they would have to settle on prices during the summer and vacate their properties by November 1, 2007. As of late October, a handful of longtime residents continue to maintain their homes with the same care they always have. Marth indicated that she would like to see development in the city; she objects to the city’s tactics and methods.

“I’m not against redevelopment,” she told city officials in June. “I’m against eminent domain abuse.”[6]

The Castle Coalition has been helping the property owners since May, and Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock visited residents in October. As a result of his visit and the positive reaction from local residents, he sent a letter to city officials on October 22 pointing out the fact that, as a non-charter city, Sugar Creek does not have eminent domain authority under the state constitution.

The eminent domain authority of small Missouri cities like Sugar Creek is the issue in Tourkakis’ suit against the city of Arnold. So long as the Missouri Supreme Court is considering this question, Sugar Creek should not be able to threaten its citizens with eminent domain because it is not clear whether the city actually has the power of eminent domain in the first place.

No matter the outcome of that case, Eleanor Miller, who moved to her house in Sugar Creek in 1948, had a clear response to the city: “I’m not going to leave.”[7]

Meanwhile, like Miller and the Marths, residents in the shadow of the Sugarland development continue to sit and wait, wondering if the city will force them out of the homes they have lived in for decades.

[1] Hugh S. Welsh, “Attorney takes up case; Eminent domain expert joins Sugar Creek fight,” The Examiner, October 3, 2007.

[2] Megan Rolland, “Sugar Creek tells homeowners it wants their land for new development, Kansas City Star, July 8, 2007.

[3] David Martin, “Grocery Sacked; Even in a tiny town like Sugar Creek there’s no escape from TIF traumas,” Pitch Weekly, May 10, 2007.

[4] Rolland.

[5] Brian Burns, “Sugar Creek development angers some longtime residents,” Kansas City Star, October 3, 2007.

[6] Quoted in Joe Parmon, “Sugar Creek delays decision on Sugarland; Residents concerned about eminent domain,” The Examiner, June 12, 2007.

[7] Welsh.