Task force studies eminent domain
Missouri churches could be threatened, depending on the meaning of ‘blight’
By Allen Palmeri
September 6, 2005
JEFFERSON CITY – Gov. Matt Blunt wants to make sure that economic development concerns do not overpower private property rights in Missouri – including churches exempt from paying property taxes.
The issue has become one of concern in Missouri as a result of a recent United States Supreme Court decision that gives local governments the right to seize private property for economic development reasons by using eminent domain laws, according to Terry Jarrett, the governor’s general counsel.
In June the governor appointed Jarrett to chair the Missouri Task Force on Eminent Domain, which is charged with evaluating the state’s eminent domain laws and making initial recommendations for suggested changes and improvements. The nine-member task force has been meeting biweekly since Aug. 4, with the next meeting scheduled for Sept. 15 in House Hearing Room 6 of the Capitol. In response to the Kelo v. City of New London decision by the Supreme Court, Jarrett said the prospect of municipal governments seizing control of church property will be pondered by task force members.
Under Missouri law, Jarrett said there must be a finding of blight before a church – even as prominent as Second Baptist Springfield where the governor attends — is taken for the economic betterment of the community. Such a hypothetical example may seem absurd, Jarrett said, considering how well-maintained the property is around Second Springfield, but it is not out of the question. He pointed to the example of residents of the Sunset Manor subdivision near St. Louis who are fighting the “blight” label brought into play by a development company that wishes to build a $165 million shopping center and office project. A nice Missouri Baptist church sitting on some prime real estate could be slapped with the same tag, he said.
“That’s the concern,” Jarrett said. “Theoretically, the answer would be no, because of the fact that you can’t really see how that would ever meet the definition of blight under current Missouri law. I wouldn’t want to sound the alarm that there’s anything imminent going on with any churches, but as you look down the road, with the Supreme Court decision sort of chipping away on the protections that private entities have to defend themselves in eminent domain proceedings, you can see where we’re heading down that slippery slope.”
The Supreme Court Aug. 22 refused to reconsider its earlier 5-4 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, a case that sparked controversy not only in Missouri but all over the nation. As a result of this ruling, at least 25 states are determined to rein in eminent domain, according to the Institute for Justice, which represented homeowners in the Connecticut case.
Missouri law is stricter than Connecticut law, Jarrett said, in that it requires a declaration, or finding, of blight before private property can be condemned and seized. The legal definition of blight would imply such things as a health risk due to urban decay, or sanitary problems, he said. However, other states like Illinois view themselves as vulnerable under the most recent Supreme Court decision because of how they define blight.
An Illinois state senator told the Associated Press that his state’s statutory definition of the term blight is “broader than the Mississippi River at its mouth.” Blunt’s concern for Missouri’s set of statutes is a bit more understated and essentially preventative in nature, Jarrett said.
“You can define public use in a way that would limit it,” Jarrett said. “You can also define blight in a way that would limit the use of eminent domain, tighten up that definition and have meaningful judicial review of that finding. Our hearings have showed us that a lot of times the courts give great deference to the legislative findings of blight so if the city council finds blight or public use, the courts say, ‘We’re not going to examine this finding further. That finding’s conclusive.’”
So far the Missouri Task Force on Eminent Domain has broken up into four informal working groups to better study the issue. Those groups are designated urban, rural/suburban, legislative and procedures. Members meeting in the first two working groups are charged with how to best address the concerns of churches, Jarrett said.
“If you’re looking at pure economic development, some of these locations (where churches sit on prime real estate) might be targets,” Jarrett said. “So we’re obviously going to take a look at that and be very cognizant of that as we move forward.”
About 50 witnesses testified before the task force Aug. 18. A preliminary report is due Oct. 1 on the governor’s desk, with the final report due Dec. 31 in time for the General Assembly to act, if necessary, when it convenes in January.
“We want to come up with a comprehensive set of recommendations for the governor on how Missouri law should be to make it fair to everyone,” Jarrett said. “We do have a couple of legislators on our task force, which we hope will be good liaisons to the Legislature as we move forward. So I’m very hopeful that we can come up with some good recommendations that will lead to some meaningful reform.”