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After that decision, state legislatures across the country passed laws strengthening property rights. Missouri joined the backlash, ruling that homeowners must receive 125 percent of their properties' fair value.
Lawmakers here also declared that eminent domain can't be used solely for economic development. But there's a loophole: If city leaders can show that an area is blighted, they can take property and hand it off to a developer.
That's what happened in Sugar Creek. The city hired a consultant, who took pictures of potholes, unpainted curbs and vegetation growing on a telephone poll. Voilà, blight!
Several residents pleaded with the city to spare their homes. But Mayor Stan Salva and others on the Board of Aldermen swore that they were looking out for the city's best interests. Sweet Talk, the city newsletter, described Sugarland as something that the community and region "deserve," whatever that means.
Miller may outlive Sugar Creek's ambitions, given the trouble that the city and the developer have had in completing the first phase of the project. But back when her removal appeared more certain, she looked for houses in Oak Grove, Grain Valley, Raytown and Blue Springs — not in Sugar Creek.
Miller used to love living in Sugar Creek. Her kids got every penny's worth of the $15 annual pass to the city pool. She likes how responsive the police are and how low her property-tax bill is.
In some ways, Sugar Creek's affordable cost of living has come around to bite Miller. State and local governments rely less on property taxes than they have at any point in the last 80 years. They make up the difference by taxing income and sales.
So when they need more revenue, they go looking for more sales tax. Sugarland was the city's attempt to light a fire under its sales-tax collections. Blight wasn't the issue. The objective was to raise revenue without asking citizens to stomach a tax increase.
But no new supermarket means no new tax revenue. In fact, the redevelopment area is producing less in taxes than it did before the homes were emptied and knocked down. Weeds don't produce the same tax revenue that a house does, no matter how modest.
With Sugarland producing a negative return on investment, Sugar Creek leaders are now staring at a $244,000 budget deficit. The lack of money means that the city will have to delay new purchases. Among the items put on hold is a Jaws of Life. "We have one now," Chief of Police Herb Soule said at a recent Board of Aldermen meeting. "It's just wearing out."
Salva remains optimistic that Sugarland will become a reality. Faulting the credit market for the delay, he expects the project to get moving next summer, with a potential 2012 completion date. "The economy's got to get better," he tells me.
Salva has been dismissive of criticism that Sugar Creek drove residents out of their homes, even going so far as to say that the city did not use eminent domain. Technically, it didn't. But if Marth and her neighbors had refused to sell, they would have been taken to court, and they would have lost. Eminent domain was a loaded gun resting on the negotiating table.
Salva also suggests that Sugarland displaced a population that was somehow less authentic. "Many of them were just rentals," he says of the homes that were taken.
That's easy for him to say. People who've been run out of a city don't get the chance to retaliate at the polls.