On April 25, Eleanor Miller stood before the Sugar Creek Tax Increment Financing Commission and pleaded for decency. Miller's voice cracked as she described her attachment to her home on South Sterling Avenue. "We raised eight children in that home, and my heart is there," she said.
Plenty of other people's hearts are in this small town, too (population: 3,839). Sandwiched between Independence and the Missouri River, Sugar Creek owes its growth to a Standard Oil refinery, which attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe. Among outsiders, it may be best-known for its annual Slavic Festival.
The TIF hearing was held in a cinder-block room inside Sugar Creek's City Hall. The crowd spilled into the hallway, where I stood next to a guy wearing a black Orange County Choppers T-shirt. A woman who relied on an oxygen tank sat in the front row.
I had gone to the meeting to see how TIF, a hot issue in the Kansas City mayor's race, was implemented in a small suburb like Sugar Creek. Also, it's not every day that a city threatens to obliterate 5 percent of its residences.
The town's TIF Commission was considering a study that said Miller's neighborhood was blighted. The commissioners decided it was, which means that 57 homeowners are slated for eviction. Miller's home will give way to a shopping center anchored by a supermarket.
Miller told the commissioners that she accepted the fact that she had to move. She asked only to be treated like an upstanding citizen. "Please be kind to us and take care of us," she said.
Sugar Creek is driving off Miller and dozens of other residents in an effort to increase its tax base. The city wants to give their land to a developer, Jeff Peterson, who plans to put up 276,000 square feet of retail along the town's border with Independence in what looks like an effort to steal sales taxes from its larger neighbor.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of cities to take private property in the name of economic development. Critics loudly blasted the 5-4 decision. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, for one, said the high court had "dealt a blow to homeowners and to property rights." He promised action.
The governor appointed a task force. Last year, he signed a bill that purported to prevent the abuse of eminent domain.
But events in Sugar Creek suggest that not much has changed. Forty acres of property are being taken not for a hospital or a school but for the grand idea to surround a big parking lot with stores. The new state law says private property cannot be taken for economic development. But an exception is made for "blighted" areas.
So, at the TIF Commission hearing, a planner named Ralph Oschner, who had been hired by the city, presented a report showing the terrible living and working conditions in the section of Sugar Creek that Peterson wants to develop.
Oschner's evidence included a photograph of a curb that needed painting (the shock!) and a pothole that needed to be filled (the horror!).
Penelope Marth lives in the redevelopment area. She jumped out of her seat at the TIF Commission hearing to speak against the blight finding. Her grandfather built several of the houses that the city wants to demolish. "People have lived on this street 50 years or more," she tells me.
Marth, an artist, writer, hypnotherapist and sometime candidate for city office, drove me around the neighborhood on a warm and misty afternoon. It looked like a lot of neighborhoods around Kansas City. Some of the houses were dumps. Others looked like they belonged to caring owners. Marth called one of her neighbors a "dandelion killer" on account of the weed-free state of his lawn.
Cruising along in her Chevy Malibu, Marth pointed out a utility pole overgrown with vegetation. Oschner had photographed the pole for his report. He ignored the rest of the poles on the street, which were free of clutter.
Now that the city has accepted Oschner's study, Marth says she and her neighbors greet each other with painful jokes about being slum dwellers: Time to mow the grass in front of my ghetto house!
Fact is, a motivated blight detective could find enough cigarette butts and oil stains to make any building look like a candidate for demolition. I spoke with Oschner after the hearing, and he acknowledged that the legal definition of blight was broad. "Everybody has their own conception of what blight looks like," he said. "But frequently that's not the same as what the state statute provides."
I asked Peterson, the developer, how he would feel if the government took his property and gave it to another developer. He told me that he has had property taken for public use. "If I'm treated fairly, I'm going to feel just fine," he said.
Peterson then tried to suggest that the effort to acquire the land in Sugar Creek was somehow distinct from his proposal, which includes a wellness center and sets aside an insultingly teensy amount of parkland. "I am not involved in buying the properties," he said.
But it's going to be for your development, I said.
"It's going to be for a development of the city."
But you're going to own it.
"I'm going to own part of it."
Who's going to own the rest?
"What else do you have to ask?"
At the TIF Commission hearing, Peterson and his attorneys tried to limit the discussion to the blight test. The residents wanted to talk about everything from what they'd be paid for their homes to the fate of a nearby post office. I felt bad for the residents, even the crazy and inarticulate ones, because it was obvious that city officials hadn't done enough to educate them about what was happening. The city's April newsletter announced the polka bands performing at the upcoming Slavic Festival but made no mention of the TIF Commission hearing. Letters sent to affected residents said nothing about the home prices they should receive under the new state law: 125 percent of fair-market value.
The Sugar Creek City Council is scheduled to vote on the TIF plan next week. If it passes, Peterson will receive hefty subsidies from the city, in addition to all the condemned land. Taxes generated by the project will cover more than half of his $42 million development costs. The reimbursable costs include more than $1 million in developer fees and overhead.
Marth expects the council to approve the plan, yet she hasn't begun to make other living arrangements.
"I don't freakin' know," she says when I ask what she'll do if she's forced from her home. "Where am I going to go where the woodwork was built by my grandfather?"
The woodwork may be destroyed. But if Marth stays in Sugar Creek, she'll have a new place to buy cereal.