- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

Homeowners fighting eminent domain might have thought their problems were over earlier this month when leaders in the Missouri city of Sunset Hills repealed ordinances that would have advanced a $180 million shopping center project.

But for some residents in the section of the city called Sunset Manor, that relief was premature.

That neighborhood has seven gutted homes that had been vacated, but the sales were not finalized, and the area still faces the possibility of perhaps being used for another private development project.

“I couldn’t sell this house right now if I wanted to” because of all the uncertainty about what will happen in Sunset Manor, said resident Kathy Tripp.

Mayor James Hobbs said the city will appoint an eight-member task force to canvass residents and business owners as to how problems in Sunset Manor should be handled, now that plans by the Novus Development Co. have been stopped in their tracks.

Alderman John Tipton said options range “from a moratorium on development” to having “other developers move in.”

One couple invested in a new home but have to remain in their gutted dwelling because the development project was halted. Another couple already had moved into a new home after stripping their former residence of carpet, kitchen cabinets and electrical wiring.

“There were 20 families that really took financial hits from Novus” after being persuaded to sell their homes and then not being paid, Mrs. Tripp said.

Novus President Jonathan Browne said the firm actually bought 16 houses in Sunset Manor.

“There is no doubt this project can and will be done, provided assistance is obtained … I need deep-pocketed, risk-tolerant investors,” Mr. Browne said.

Novus began working on the economic development project in 2003 and needed to buy and raze 262 properties. The city gave Novus the go-ahead to use eminent domain.

Novus has said most residents signed contracts authorizing the project, but some, such as Mrs. Tripp, joined in lawsuits against the developer. Novus said the lawsuits made it difficult to secure the $50 million needed to acquire all the homes.

Earlier this month, a circuit court judge ruled that Sunset Hills acted improperly in allowing the development project to proceed. The judge held that Sunset Hills violated state law by failing to send the project back for further review by a county commission after the project had undergone significant changes.

After the ruling, Mr. Hobbs and the eight-member Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen presided over a meeting of angry homeowners. Action was taken to repeal six ordinances that had been passed last year to allow the project to proceed.

“We thought we were diligent [in checking out Novus], but we should have insisted on seeing financial proof that they had the money in place to buy the houses,” Mr. Tipton said.

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