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St. Louis can start eminent domain process to clear area for federal agency

courtesy National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The city of St. Louis can start the legal process to move residents from a north side area that would instead become home to a federal spy agency.

The city's Board of Aldermen passed a resolution Friday allowing the use of eminent domain against 19 property owners. They live within a 100-acre acre that is the proposed site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The vote was 19- 5 with one abstention.

The city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) has spent the last several months reaching out to 110 property owners who own the area's 551 parcels. Fifth Ward AlderwomanTammika Hubbard said 66 have signed options to sell, while seven are close to signing.

"I can say that the city has went above and beyond to accommodate those that would be affected by the situation," Hubbard said.

Hubbard and other proponents argue the city would lose $2.4 million in earnings taxes each year if the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency leaves the city. The federal agency, which is currently located south of downtown, is expected to choose from among four sites in April. Those include the north city site; land near Scott Air Force Base; and locations in Fenton and Mehlville.

The north city area is home to about 200 residents, a handful of businesses, and a lot of vacant land and buildings. Hubbard pointed out that the neighborhood lacks for something as basic as a grocery store. Yet Alderman Antonio French (21st Ward) said the city shouldn’t push residents from their homes.

"It’s not that people don’t want this area redeveloped, but we want it done in a way that respects the people who live there, respects them as people who stuck it out," he said.

French voted against the resolution, noting the possibility of eminent domain remains on the books even if the agency goes elsewhere.

The city is scrambling to ensure it has control of the entire area by spring. The NGA requires that it buy land from only one owner. Yet Alderwoman Marlene Davis, who voted for the resolution, said no moves are imminent.

"Nobody is going to court tomorrow with this document," she said.

But the city is now free to begin the eminent domain process. First, LCRA will send out letters of intent to the 37 property owners listed in the resolution. Sixty days from the time those letters go out, the city can file a petition in court.

If those letters are mailed on Monday, a condemnation hearing could happen the week before Christmas.

That worries Patricia Lee. She’s director of the St. Louis University Legal Clinics and represents several residents within the proposed site for the federal agency. She said many are seniors and some are infirm.

"What kind of feeling will they have about the holidays at that point?" Lee asked.

Here’s the entire eminent domain process:

  • 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.

McKee on list

Northside Regeneration owns about 40 acres within the agency’s site. As St. Louis Public Radio has previously reported, developer Paul McKee is among property owners who could face the prospect of eminent domain.

St. Louis Development Corporation executive director Otis Williams has stressed that being included doesn’t indicate an adversarial relationship. He said negotiations can continue even as the eminent domain process moves forward.

Yet Alderman Scott Ogilvie (24th Ward), who voted for the resolution Friday, said it indicates where things stand with the developer.

"When we have to do this, I think we have to recognize we no longer have a partner in Paul McKee," Ogilvie said. "I honestly think it’s time to revisit the Northside TIF."

The Board of Aldermen approved a $390 million tax increment financing package for Northside Regeneration in 2009 and renewed it in 2013. Ogilvie said he believes the ordinance should be repealed.

Jim Gradl, a spokesman for McKee, did not specifically respond to Ogilvie's suggestion that the TIF be rescinded. Instead, he said negotiations with the city for the property sale continue in "good faith."

"Northside Regeneration has agreed to sell the parcels in question to the City at a fraction of the estimated prices payable in condemnation," he said in an emailed statement. "The finishing touches are being applied to those agreements and the expectation of the parties is that the agreements will soon be signed."

McKee and Northside Regeneration have not received any of the TIF money, as no development has occurred so far.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

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