St. Louis mural on eminent domain spawns lawsuit

Saturday, July 12, 2008 | 8:44 p.m. CDT; updated 3:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — When the city declared the aging Bohemian Hill neighborhood “blighted” and opened the door to the possibility of using eminent domain to redevelop it, social activist Jim Roos decided to protest in a big way.

He hired an artist to paint a two-story-high mural on the outside of a duplex in Bohemian Hill, turning a late-1800s brick facade into a massive declaration of outrage easily spotted from the city’s major arteries.

The sign, which says “End Eminent Domain Abuse” inside a red circle with a slash through it, has annoyed local civic leaders and led to a legal battle that pits free speech against a city’s right to enforce its zoning laws.

The city is asking a federal judge to order Roos to get rid of the painting. The city’s attorneys claim it isn’t art or constitutionally protected free speech, but simply a sign that’s too big: Local codes restrict signs in the city’s residential areas to 30-square feet in total size, said Matthew Moak, an associate city attorney who is representing St. Louis in the litigation. At 24 feet in diameter, Roos’ painting is more than 12 times too large.

“I don’t care what it says. This is about aesthetics,” Moak said. “If it had been dogs playing poker on the side of the building, it’d still be a problem. You cannot erect what amounts to a two-story piece of graffiti.”

Roos — who runs a company that manages rental units for low-income residents, including the building with the painting on it — admits he didn’t apply for a permit from the city before having his views opposing eminent domain painted on the building. When he tried to get one after the fact, the city denied his application.

Now, Roos said, it’s the painting’s message — not the size — that St. Louis lawmakers are really trying to erase.

“If this were advertising McDonald’s, or beer, or the Cardinals, there’d be no discussion or debate,” said Roos, 64. “The city just can’t stand that someone is protesting what they’re doing in such a loud way.”

The lawsuit is slated to go to trial next spring.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that local governments could seize private property and hand it over to developers, the battle over the practice of eminent domain has led to a slew of state legislation over the issue.

Some states, such as California, have few restrictions, said Larry Morandi, director of state policy research for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, lawmakers in Sacramento failed to pass a measure that would have limited local governments from acquiring homes, churches and farmland through eminent domain.

Last month, California voters shot down a proposition that would have phased out rent control and limited the government’s ability to take private property. Voters, however, did pass a measure that protects owner-occupied homes from eminent domain.

Missouri’s law prevents governments from using the process solely for the purpose of economic gain or to increase the tax base, “but that adverb — solely — gives cities some wiggle room,” Morandi said. “It tells local governments, ‘You better make sure you’ve done your homework before you try to take a property.’”

City officials say the measure has helped St. Louis. Like many Midwestern cities with old housing stock and numerous abandoned properties, St. Louis has used eminent domain as part of a broader effort to redevelop neighborhoods. And the city has faced the legal battles that often follow.

For Roos, a seminary graduate who is also spearheading a grassroots effort to have a measure restricting eminent domain placed on the November ballot, this fight goes back decades.

When he unsuccessfully ran for alderman here in 1987, his campaign focused on letting neighborhoods revitalize naturally, rather than “be rushed by a bunch of developers,” Roos said.

Several years ago, the issue became personal when the city invoked its right of eminent domain to acquire and tear down two dozen buildings managed by his group, Neighborhood Enterprises Inc.

“When some of our tenants started getting letters from the city last year, saying once again the city was interested in acquiring their homes, I felt like something drastic needed to be done,” Roos said.

The painting is on a house in a wedge-shaped residential area. Bohemian Hill was once home to eastern European immigrants who were drawn to the city’s industrial boom in the 19th century. It later fell into decay and was partially cleared to make room for two interstate highways.

Today, the area is a hodgepodge of elegantly rehabbed condominiums, modest low-income housing, and rows of boarded-up brick homes that date to the turn of the 20th century.

“I’ve had city officials tell me that if it were smaller, and painted on the front of the building, then it’d be OK,” Roos said. “But then, what’s the point? No one would see it.”

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