A minister still feels burned by the city.

A New Suit for Church 

A minister still feels burned by the city.

One windy November day, Pastor Sydney Ramphal was sitting down to a ministers' luncheon in Independence when he got a phone call from his daughter.

"I don't want you to panic, Dad," she told him, "but the church is on fire."

It was just a few weeks before the Grace Assembly of God Church was to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Ramphal jumped into his car and drove to 40th Street and Harrison. When he arrived at about 2 p.m., the four-alarm blaze was already raging, with more than sixty firefighters battling to keep it from spreading to nearby houses.

Ramphal watched for hours, hoping his church could be saved. But the next day, a fire department official declared the building a total loss.

That was in 1999. In the years since, Ramphal has been fighting the City of Kansas City, asking to be compensated for what he says was the city's negligence in failing to maintain the property next door, where the fire started in an abandoned, trash-filled garage.

Last year, the church settled a lawsuit with the Land Trust of Jackson County, which owned the hazardous property where the fire started. The Land Trust is an agency charged with maintaining and selling unwanted properties left over after tax-foreclosure auctions; it's run by a board of three members -- one appointed by the city, one by the county and one by the school district. (In 2000, the agency was the subject of a scathing state audit that exposed mismanagement and financial irregularities. Ultimately, the city was forced to remove its board appointee, Robert Newsome, replacing him with former City Councilwoman Aggie Stackhaus.)

This January, however, the church filed a $4.6 million lawsuit against the city in Jackson County Court.

The church's lawsuit alleges that the city and the Land Trust had an agreement that the city was responsible for "maintaining, securing and demolishing, as needed, all buildings owned by the Land Trust."

Ramphal had wanted to clean up the property himself. For years, Ramphal and other neighbors had been complaining to the Land Trust and the city's Codes Enforcement Office about the property's dangerous condition. In addition to the abandoned garage, it was the site of a former restaurant called The Salad Bar.

The abandoned buildings were unsecured and often used as shelter for vagrants, who cooked over open fires inside. The property was scattered with junked cars, a broken-down bus, piles of leaves, filthy mattresses, a microwave oven, old tires and broken furniture. Before the blaze that destroyed the church, Kansas City firefighters had put out two smaller fires on the Land Trust's property -- one in August 1997 and another in April 1998.

Ramphal had contacted the Land Trust about the possibility of buying the lot, but the city had placed a hold on it to prevent it from being sold. The church's lawsuit says that the city wanted to use the land as part of its Troost Corridor redevelopment plan, an effort to fix up Troost Avenue from 22nd Street to Volker Boulevard.

That's one reason the church filed this lawsuit. The previous lawsuit alleged that the city was holding on to the Land Trust property for a public purpose -- the Troost redevelopment plan -- and that because officials knew the structures posed a fire hazard, the fire essentially allowed the city to unconstitutionally annex the church's neighboring property. Lawyers for the city apparently believed they stood a better chance of fighting that allegation in federal court, and a judge agreed.

"We don't think it belongs in federal court," says the church's attorney, Jamie Lansford, of the firm Arthur Benson & Associates.

Besides, the church had its own redevelopment plan.

"We had put 25 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into bringing the church up-to-date," says Ramphal, who came to Kansas City from Guyana in 1975 to establish the church. "It had new furnaces, new musical instruments, new heating and air conditioning, new carpet, and a beautiful Hammond organ."

As the church was growing over the last two decades, Ramphal was mowing the weeds on the Land Trust's lot. One of the buildings had a roof that was caving in, and the lawsuit alleges that both structures had inoperable electrical and plumbing systems. Ramphal figured that if he bought the land, he could level the buildings and put in a parking lot. Eventually, he hoped to build a community center with a gym.

Three months before the fire, in August 1999, Grace Assembly of God submitted a formal bid to purchase the property. In September, the Land Trust approved the sale, pending a letter from the city's Planning and Development Department to release the hold the city had placed on the property.

Meanwhile, city codes inspectors had made several visits to the property. On November 2, 1999, a codes inspector stopped by to make an assessment.

"That inspector pretty much concluded that it made sense to tear [the buildings] down," Lansford says, noting that that inspector called in an official from the city's dangerous-buildings demolition program.

The dangerous buildings inspector left the property shortly before noon. The fire started at about 1:15 p.m., according to news reports. Fire officials later determined that the blaze had been set.

That's one reason City Attorney Galen Beaufort says the city was not responsible for the damage to the church.

"We neither owned nor possessed the property, nor did we cause the fire," Beaufort tells the Pitch. He says he doesn't believe the Land Trust was responsible for the fire, either.

Though the circumstances might have seemed suspicious, Ramphal wasn't surprised that a fire would start so soon after the inspectors' visit. Sometimes when Ramphal would sit in his office on the second floor of the church, he'd look out the window and see smoke coming from one of the empty buildings. "I would call the police and tell them, 'There's people in there cooking. That thing could start a fire,'" Ramphal recalls.

Beyond the question of who set the fire, Beaufort contends that the city's agreement related only to mowing weeds on some Land Trust property.

He compares the situation to a hypothetical arsonist sneaking into a private citizen's home through an open window and starting a fire that burns down a neighbor's house.

"It doesn't mean the person next door didn't get harmed, but you didn't do anything wrong -- somebody else did," Beaufort says.

After the fire, the church's insurance company covered $540,000 worth of damage -- a fraction of what the church was worth. Ramphal recalls that his congregation was devastated. "Some cried, some were left dumbstruck," he says. Members of Ramphal's congregation and older people who had attended the church in one of its previous incarnations -- it had been a Presbyterian church, then a Church of the Nazarene -- stopped by to take bricks in memory of the building.

After that, Ramphal's congregation began meeting at a temporary location while workers rebuilt their church. The congregation finally was able to purchase the Land Trust's property last April, Ramphal says, and they are waiting for city inspectors to issue a certificate of occupancy so they can start holding services in their new sanctuary, which isn't anything like the old one. "The value of that building was over $4 million, but you can't build it back for that now -- the new one doesn't have the same workmanship and materials that were in that building," Ramphal says.

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