Timothy B. Lee

 

 

The summer of 2005 was not a good one for Sharon Fitzgerald. On Memorial Day, she learned she had inoperable lung cancer. Three days later, she got a knock on her door.

It was Jonathan Browne, head of real estate developer Novus Equities. He wanted to buy her house. And he made it clear that this was an offer she couldn't refuse.

Sunset Hills
Michael Fitzgerald outside his "blighted" home. Sharon was too ill to come outside for this picture.

"He told us that if we didn't sell, he'd just use eminent domain and take our home anyway," said Sharon, "What could we do? With my health and everything and the chance to lose our home anyway, we didn't really have a choice."

Sharon and her husband Michael reluctantly agreed to sell. They wanted to get the issue behind them so they could concentrate on dealing with her illness. But when the time came to close on the house, they were dealt another blow: "It turned out that Browne didn't have enough money from the banks to close," said Sharon.

Residents say that Browne misled them and the city council about his capacity to complete the project. In reality, he didn't have the money he needed to buy out the properties, and he was having trouble recruiting tenants for the shopping mall he wanted to build. When those facts came to light, the project collapsed.

Sunset Hills
Another Sunset Hills home condemned for "blight."

That has put many Sunset Hills residents in a bind. Some of them had already entered into agreements with Browne to sell their homes to him, and they had made plans to move on the assumption that the contracts would be honored.

Even worse, some property owners have already moved, leaving their previous homes in a state of disrepair. There wasn't much blight in Sunset Hills at the start of the process, but there is plenty now. Some of the most neglected homes in the neighborhood are owned by Browne, who has not kept them in good repair.

One Sunset Hills resident died without bequeathing his house to anyone, leaving the house abandoned. Sunset Hills doesn't have any legal provision for handling abandoned property, and neighbors say that the city council hasn't made any effort to address the problem, choosing instead to let the property deteriorate.

With the collapse of Browne's development plan, the uncertainty faced by Sharon and Michael has only increased. There is talk of finding another developer, but that will take time. In the meantime, property values have begun to decline as the looming threat of condemnation discourages anyone from purchasing property in the area.

Sunset Hills
The home of Sharon's parents, also condemned for blight.

Sharon and her husband weren't the only ones whose lives were put on hold by Browne's actions. Sharon's parents live just down the street from her in the house they've owned since 1954. When Browne came to the door with threats of eminent domain, Sharon's parents became quite frightened. "They were scared out of their minds," said Sharon. "They've lived in that house for decades and they can't afford house payments now, with their medical bills and other expenses. The entire experience has had a terrible effect on their health."

Not all of Sharon's neighbors were so easily intimidated. Resident Kathy Tripp decided to tell Mayor Hobbs about Browne's strong-arm tactics. She got nowhere. "He assured me everything would be fine, but then he didn't do anything at all," said Kathy.

But Kathy isn't easily deterred. She recently filed suit against Novus and Browne for fraud. The suit details Browne's extensive harassment of residents.

Sunset Hills
This neglected property is owned by developer Jonathan Browne.

Kathy says that Browne's harassment campaign was made possible by the city's decision to use the power of eminent domain. When Browne approached the city with his development proposal, the city enthusiastically agreed to help him get the land he wanted. They commissioned a blight study from Peckham, Guyton, Albers, and Viets (PGAV), a consulting firm notorious for finding blighted conditions everywhere they look. After inspecting only 42 of the 262 homes, PGAV concluded the neighborhood was blighted, citing such problems as a broken rainspout, an unsettled concrete porch, and a family of four living in a 2-bedroom house. With the blight study in hand, Browne had a credible threat to use against residents who didn't want to sell their homes.

Residents say that eminent domain has pitted neighbor against neighbor, as those who want to move blame those who want to stay, and vice versa. "I've been called every name in the book by some neighbors," said Kathy. "Some people don't like me standing up for my rights."

But both Sharon, who signed a contract with Browne, and Kathy, who refused to do so, agree on this much: it's not right to use eminent domain for private profit.

"It's not right what Browne has done, or what the city has done." Sharon said. "People's homes shouldn't be taken away just because the city can pocket some extra money. A hospital is one thing, but profit is different. And Brown has nearly destroyed our neighborhood, pitting one against the other. The hardest ones hit are the elderly."

Timothy B. Lee is an editor at the Show-Me Institute. Jonathon Burns is a student at Truman State University.

 

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