ALTHOUGH the 1980 financial disclosure forms filed by the justices of the Supreme Court are sketchy -- only a general estimate of assets is required under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act -- it is clear from the 1980 forms that Chief Justice Warren Burger has taken a long leap toward joining colleagues Lewis Powell Jr. and Potter Stewart in the court's millionaires club.
An examination of public records shows that in the past two years, Burger has participated and profited -- entirely properly -- in a Minnesota real estate venture that has increased in value from $75,000 to more than $2 million.
Burger's Minnesota investment interest goes by the name of Wooddale Hillside Inc., a small, privately held development corporation located in Woodbury, Minn., just a few minutes' drive from Burger's hometown of St. Paul. Wooddale Hillside's only asset is a once-vacant 37-acre lot bought in 1978 for $75,000 that is now so valuable that one-quarter of the commerically usable land was sold for $480,000 within months after Wooddale Hillside bought the land.
Wooddale Hillside is the creation of John Currell, a crusty 69-year-old St. Paul real estate developer who has known Burger for more than 25 years. Burger's brother, John, works for John Currell Realty. According to Currell, he and Burger each put up one-quarter of the closely held corporation's $75,000 initial investment in the property, and each now owns a quarter of the corporation's stock.
"I set it up. I am the real estate man." Currell explained in a recent interview. "I asked Warren [in 1978] if he was interested, and he was. Hell, I don't care if he is the chief justice. I'll take anyone's money." Currell says Burger paid cash for his interest -- "I don't take anybody's note" -- and that Burger's wife, Elvera, is the owner of record.
Although Burger is one of the largest shareholders in the company, and, according to Currell, is in touch with Currell regularly on the progress of the investment, most people who deal with Wooddale Hillside are surprised to learn of his involvement. Neither his name nor his wife's appear on any of the company's public records.
For several years before Currell brought Burger into the Wooddale Hillside venture, Currell was renting the land from owners William and Hulda Pribnow of Woodbury's Washington County, and had acquired development rights. But Currell's early plans for the site -- an office park and residential housing area under the name Village Marketplace Development -- failed to draw purchasers and renters.
Then, in April 1976, Dayton-Hudson Corporation, the midwestern department store chain, and Robert Muir, a California developer, announced their interest in building a shopping mall on a 180-acre site in Woodbury, just across the street from Currell's languishing development.
A little more than a year after Dayton-Hudson's announcement, Currell incorporated Wooddale Hillside and named himself to the board of directors. Burger is not on the board of directors.
In March 1978, Currell submitted revised plans for Village Marketplace to the Woodbury City Council. Under the new plans, all the residential property was scrapped and replaced by a plan that was heavily commercial and would serve as a sort of auxiliary mall to the planned Dayton-Hudson mall. Included in Currell's plans were a bank site, space for wholesale businesses, medical buildings, lodges, clubs, and a funeral home, as well as three general office sites.
The switch angered many residents of the area, especially those who had purchased homes nearby, but the city council rapidly approved the plans nevertheless.
Two months after the council's approval, the Wooddale Hillside group purchased the Pribnows' land for $75,000. "I see that we could have gotten much more," says Richard Pribnow, the seller's son, adding that at the time the site was sold he didn't know that the city council had approved Currell's exclusively commerical plans for the property.
Within months of the $75,000 purchase, Wooddale Hillside sold 5.2 acres of the parcel for $480,000 to Eastern Heights State Bank, which is owned by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M) in St. Paul. William Jensen, a 3M spokesman, says Eastern Heights State Bank had to outbid another bank for the site, but was eager to do so because of its proximity to the planned Dayton-Hudson mall, which he believes will be one of the largest, if not the largest, in the state. As for paying $480,000 for the site -- six times the present purchase price of the whole property for only one-seventh of it -- Jensen says Wooddale Hillside "got a good deal, I guess . . . That's one heck of an appreciation," but adds that 3M still "considered [it] a good deal at the time we bought it. We were not alone in considering this a good piece of property."
Jensen says his office knew that the chief justice was involved in Wooddale Hillside but only "in an incidental way."
A sprawling wood-with-tin-roofed bank now stands on the location, surrounded by vast parking lots and a vacant lot with a John Currell Realtor "for sale" sign stuck in the ground. Currell's office, which handles inquiries about Wooddale Hillside, sits in the basement of the bank.
The remainder of the development has been slowed because Dayton-Hudson has not yet begun building its mall, despite commitments from J. C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Donaldson's and a host of other shops. Dayton-Hudson officials and others involved in the development of the area say the holdup has been caused by the need for another interchange off Interstate 494, which pierces Woodbury one block northeast of the shopping center. The interchange will cost about $9 million and neither the city of Woodbury nor Dayton-Hudson wants to pay for it. A compromise is expected soon, however. The Federal Highway Administration recently approved the construction of the interchange.
According to 1980 market value estimates from the Washington County assessor's office, the remaining land of the Wooddale Hillside project is worth $453,124. At a sale price, however, of $480,000 for 5.2 acres of the 75 percent of the property that is commercially usable, the remaining three-quarters would seem to be worth a great deal more than the assessor's estimate. Assuming comparable sale prices for the remaining commercial property, the land appears to be worth more than $2 million.
The financial disclosure forms also show that Burger was an active investor in the Washington area soon after he arrived here in 1953, after 20 years of private practice in St. Paul, to assume the post of assistant attorney general. In 1955 he purchased two parcels of adjacent land, 188,785 square feet in all, next to Chain Bridge and straddling Fairfax and Arlington counties. The price: $46,500. (At the time, Burger was earning $15,000 a year at Justice.) That land, which includes the site of Burger's home, is now worth $341,490, according to compilations from the Arlington and Fairfax county assessors, and his house is worth an additional $105,900. In 1967, Burger, then on the U.S. Court of Appeals, bought 20,000 square feet of land in Arlington for $16,500. That property is now worth $46,100, according to the Arlington County assessor's office.
Based on all the information available in the disclosure forms and on these assessments of his property, Burger's net worth seems to be between $727,000 and $1.3 million. Though it is probably closer to the higher number, it is impossible to determine his assets exactly because of the wide dollar ranges that are offered on the financial disclosure forms.
Supreme Court observers familiar with the few land-use and zoning decisions rendered by the high court in the past 10 years note that the chief justice has generally favored a less restrictive approach to land development than that advocated by environmentalists and others. However, neither he nor the court has been involved in any decisions affecting his properties or the two corporations -- 3M and Dayton-Hudson -- whose actions have helped his investment, Wooddale Hillside.