A few months ago, property owners in Sugar Creek sold their homes and businesses to the city so that the city could then hand the properties over to a developer to build the Sugarland project. Property owners were waiting to see whether Sugar Creek, an unchartered city in Missouri, had the power of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes. The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in Arnold v. Tourkakis said that small cities in the state could use eminent domain for economic development.
Why were residents worried? The Sugar Creek city council passed Ordinance 3149, which authoried the use of eminent domain for the Sugarland Center. Not only that, but the city made it perfectly clear to residents that if they did not sell, the city would take their homes. Letters to residents said that the city had the right to acquire their homes if negotiations did not lead to a voluntary purchase.
How “negotiations” could take place is not certain. Most residents did not want to sell. Whether or not residents wanted to sell, didn’t matter: the city essentially said, “Sell or we’ll take it.” Negotiations usually require that both parties have something to bring to the table and that the end not be pre-determined. However, with eminent domain hanging over residents’ heads, there’s no question that negotiations would end with residents losing their homes to the city. The only recourse property owners have in these situations is the courts, and with the Arnold decision, even that was obliterated.
Nevertheless, Sugar Creek Mayor Stan Silva thinks eminent domain wasn’t used, according to Pitch Weekly‘s David Martin:
The state’s TIF law allows cities to condemn property and then turn it over to private development. It’s the hammer over the heads of property owners who might not wish to sell. Eventually, the government gets what it wants.
Yet Salva keeps behaving as if the homeowners in Sugar Creek parted willingly with their houses and baked cookies for the guys driving the bulldozers.
When demolition work began in April, Salva said eminent domain had not been used to get the homes. He repeats the falsehood in the most recent edition of “Sweet Talk,” the city newsletter. Salva apparently believes that if a sale is made without the city having to go to court, eminent domain was not a factor.
The United States is somewhat unique in its use of the term of eminent domain, which describes the government power. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, use a much clearer term for what happened here: compulsory purchase. There was no willing sale of their homes, it was made mandatory that residents give up their homes.
Martin also has a great quote from Missouri property rights ombudsman Anthony Martin: ” ‘Look,’ Martin says, ‘either he’s lying or he’s operating with a version of word usage that’s so morally anesthetized that…you’re not going to have a chance in arguing with him.'”
So, no, the city may not have followed through with eminent domain, but they used the term “eminent domain” to great effect. They had no need of officially declaring eminent domain; all they had to do to get what they wanted was mention it.