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Court hears arguments for and against clearing land for spy agency

Land within the proposed north city site for the Naitonal Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The NGA 's director, Robert Cardillo, is expected to make a final decision about where the agency will relocate in April.

Updated 2:30 p.m.,  Jan. 29, to include court hearing information - Several property owners were in St. Louis Circuit Court Friday regarding land they own within a proposed site for a federal spy agency.

The city of St. Louis has been able to reach agreement with owners for nearly all the land it needs for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. But for 31 parcels, there’s still no resolution and the city has taken those property owners to court in condemnation proceedings.

Patricia Lee, director of St. Louis University Legal Clinics, represents several of the owners. On Friday, she asked Judge David Dowd that the court be fair.

“To make sure homeowners get notice in advance, because many of them are seniors and some of them are infirm, so they need as much notice in advance to find another place to live,” Lee said.

Adrienne Harris runs an adult day care within the N-G-A footprint and said Friday that it takes at least a year to get a new license from the state. That makes it nearly impossible to move her business.

“I can’t move the business. I’m just out of business. I’ve lost an employee already, I’ve lost my director, they’re looking for other jobs, because when they take my property that’s the end,” Harris said.

St. Louis Development Corporation executive director Otis Williams said they have come to agreement with nearly everyone in the site. Williams said many of those yet to agree just have title issues that need to be cleared up.

"The case being filed today is essentially the last major step we have to take total control of the site, which is a major requirement for us," Williams said.

Judge Dowd said he would appoint three commissioners by the end of Friday. The commissioners will hear from both sides, view the property and decide what just compensation will be.

Those hearings will take place at a later date.

Our original story: A St. Louis city agency filed suit Tuesday against several property owners to push land sales through and make way for a federal agency.

It’s part of an effort to gain control of 100 acres on the north side that city officials hope will become the new home of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The spy agency, currently located south of downtown, will choose one of four locations in the region this April.

The Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority filed the eminent domain petition in St. Louis circuit court. It names about 30 individuals, but only nine people actually live within the proposed site.

St. Louis Development Corporation executive director Otis Williams said no one named in the suit is opposed to selling to the city.

"These are definitely title issues or related to title issues," he said.

However, Williams said, there are a handful of property owners who are holding out and a series of suits will be filed in coming days. He described the number of pending lawsuits as being in the single digits.

"There will be subsequent filings and then there will a request for consolidation at some point," Williams said.

Time is critical for city officials working to get control of the land. That’s because NGA director Robert Cardillo is expected to make a final decision in April.

"The most important piece of the puzzle is to show that we have one owner of the property so that we can then transfer the property to the NGA if we are selected," Williams said.

The initial lawsuit has been assigned to Judge David Dowd, who will decide after a hearing whether the city has the authority to use eminent domain. The Board of Aldermen approved using condemnation to force land sales earlier this year and passed resolutions naming specific land owners this fall.

If the judge finds the city has eminent domain authority, he will appoint three commissioners to view the properties, hear testimony and decide the amount the city should pay. All three commissioners must own property in St. Louis and one must be a real estate expert.

If either the city or a land owners appeals the commissioners’ findings, a full jury would then determine the land’s value. But an appeal would not hold up the city’s efforts to attract the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, according to eminent domain attorney Gerard Carmody, who is representing the city in the suit.

"From the NGA’s perspective, once we get commissioners' award in place we then effectively have enough site control for them to say we’re acquiring this from one owner," he told St. Louis Public Radio earlier this fall.

No hearing has been set in the suit yet.

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