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Missouri Condemnation No Longer So Imminent

Residents of Sunset Hills, Mo., attend a hearing on the city's proposed use of eminent domain for commercial development.
Residents of Sunset Hills, Mo., attend a hearing on the city's proposed use of eminent domain for commercial development. (By Andrew Cutraro -- St. Louis Post-dispatch)

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By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

SUNSET HILLS, Mo. -- When David Wright retired from his factory job in 1997, he poured just about all his savings into a handsome brick house in the Sunset Manor subdivision here. "This was our dream," said David's wife, Lorraine. "We were set here for the rest of our lives."

But the dream turned sour when the city council of this St. Louis suburb decided last year to bulldoze all 254 homes in Sunset Manor and turn the land over to a shopping-mall developer. "We cried and we prayed," Lorraine Wright recalled. "And we put a lot of hope into the Supreme Court, because they were supposed to decide whether this kind of thing is legal."

So the Wrights were crushed -- at first -- when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 23 that the Constitution does not stop cities from seizing homes to make way for commercial development projects. "What we didn't realize right away," David Wright said, "was that the decision would be a positive development for those of us who don't want to see people's houses taken away."

Here in Missouri and all over the country, the court's decision in Kelo v. City of New London has sparked a furious reaction, with politicians of both parties proposing new legislation that would sharply limit the kind of seizure the court's decision validated.

As a result, a decision first seen as a key legal victory for cities that want to use eminent domain for private projects has turned into a major setback on the political front for pro-development interests.

The popular backlash has slowed or blocked many pending projects, as developers, their bankers and local governments suddenly face public furor.

In Sunset Hills, the bank that planned to finance the proposed new mall abruptly withdrew its funding amid a noisy political argument after the Kelo decision. That means the Wrights' home is safe, for the time being -- but hundreds of their neighbors who had agreed to move out are left in limbo.

Three states have already passed new laws in response to the Kelo decision.

The statutes in Alabama and Texas sharply curtail eminent-domain condemnations for private development. "We don't like anybody messing with our dogs, our guns, our hunting rights or trying to take property from us," said state Sen. Jack Biddle, a sponsor of the Alabama law. Delaware's new statute permits condemnation but sets new procedural requirements for local governments.

Larry Morandi, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, predicts a rush of new laws next winter, when 44 state legislatures will be back in session.

"Most if not all state legislatures will be dealing with eminent-domain laws next year," Morandi said. "The outcry has been so sharp that many states already have task forces or study committees at work on this issue this summer. Most of the proposed legislation is designed to restrict the kind of governmental action that the court upheld in Kelo ."

The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, said that hundreds of local governments around the country are also debating new ordinances to restrict the use of eminent domain. Many have passed laws this summer barring any seizure of private property for commercial development. Other cities are tightening the conditions that could authorize such seizure.


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