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Aldermanic committee endorses use of eminent domain in National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency site

(Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Joyce Cooks holds a sign she said she carries with her at all times. She and 5th Ward resident Megan Betts oppose the city's efforts to lure the intelligence agency to north city. Cooks is among those who could face eminent domain.

St. Louis soon could begin using the eminent domain process against land owners within the proposed site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on the city's north side.

Members of the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee voted 8-1 on Wednesday for a resolution that listed 37 property owners who could be forced to sell their land to the city. The resolution is  expected to go before the full board on Friday.

Otis Williams, the executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, stressed that the city is still negotiating with land owners. He said several of them were included because they just hadn’t reached a deal yet.

"It doesn’t mean we’re at odds with them," he said. "All we’re doing is really establishing a timeline. We hope to continue negotiating with them, and that they’ll come off of our list."

The intelligence agency is expected to choose from among four possible sites in the St. Louis region in April for a new $1.6 billion facility. The city is offering a 100-acre area just north of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing development. The site includes about 200 residents, with 42 owners still living in homes there.

So far, Williams said, 67 land owners have signed options that will go into effect if the agency chooses north city. That includes an agreement with one resident to move her three-story brick home. Williams said CharlesettaTaylor, a longtime opponent of the effort to lure the agency, signed on Tuesday night.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Taylor said she was glad her home would be saved should the intelligence agency come to the neighborhood.

"It’s taken quite a while, but I believe I’ll be satisfied," she said.

For others, the resolution before the board increases the pressure. Resident Joyce Cooks, who is among those that could face eminent domain, told members of the HUDZ committee she doesn’t feel she’s been heard. She said she can’t imagine how they would replace the 15-room home where she’s lived for more than 40 years.

"It makes no sense," she told the committee. "You’re making other people’s jobs more important than me."

The current intelligence agency facility south of downtown St. Louis has 3,100 employees. They pay roughly $2.4 million in city earnings taxes each year. City officials have said it would be disastrous to lose those jobs. Mayor Francis Slay has touted the move to north city as a way to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods.

The lone "no" vote against the eminent domain resolution was cast by Alderman Chris Carter of the 27th Ward. He said if the intelligence agency chooses the site, half of those earnings taxes will go toward paying off the costs of acquiring and clearing the land.

But he said he especially didn’t like the use of eminent domain. Carter pointed to Joyce Cooks, who was his first grade teacher, as an example of someone who had deep roots in the neighborhood.

"The city has been generous in terms of offering a fair amount, but they don’t understand the sensitivity when it comes to taking someone’s home," Carter said. "You’re asking someone to up and leave."

No one will be moved or paid for their land if the agency chooses another site. But because the federal government requires dealing with one land owner, the city must have the options in hand by this March.

Eminent domain attorney Gerard Carmody is representing the city. He said that’s a tight timeline.

Here are the steps left in the eminent domain process:

  • The Board of Aldermen will consider the resolution as soon as Friday.
  • If passed, the city can send out “letters of intent” to the 37 individual land owners. That starts the clock ticking on a 60-day time period that’s required before the city can file a condemnation petition with the circuit court.
  • The city also must provide a final offer to land owners at least 30 days before condemnation petition is filed in court.
  • Once the 60-day period is up, the city then files a court petition for a condemnation hearing. In that hearing a circuit court judge will decide whether the city has the authority to take land.
  • If the judge finds the city has the authority to use eminent domain, the judge will appoint three commissioners to hear testimony, physically go out and view property, and make a final determination of value.
  • At this point the city would have clear title to the land, which is what the federal intelligence agency requires before it makes its final decision in April.
  • If either the city or an individual land owner wants to contest the value that the three commissioners determined, the matter could be appealed and go before a full jury. The jury would only be assessing the amount the city should pay land owners, not whether the land can be taken.

The intelligence agency is also considering sites in Fenton, Mehlville, and land near Scott Air Force Base. A study released earlier this month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seemed to indicate the city had a good shot at winning the bid. In the committee meeting Wednesday, Williams said the report did not indicate any "fatal flaws" in the city's location.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.