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As fireworks burst in the sky on Independence Day 2018, Roxanne and Carter Maier were putting in yet another grueling 14-hour day of remodeling a former doctor's office into a dance studio in Brentwood, a small suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

"This is the last time we're doing this," the husband and wife team told each other multiple times throughout the move to their new location. Sweat poured down their faces as they ripped industrial carpet away from the concrete floor. They invested about $100,000 and countless hours renovating the building with the hopes of eventually purchasing it.

But just a few years later, the city declared a strip of businesses — including the Maiers' — and small industrial buildings blighted. It moved to hand over the land to a private developer in a $436 million deal that seeks to use eminent domain to force out existing property owners and replace them with apartments, a hotel, office space, a microbrewery and stores.

The developer behind the project estimated it would generate more than $266 million in new revenue over the next 25 years.

Roxanne and Carter Maier dance in their studio

Roxanne and Carter Maier moved their dance studio to Brentwood, Missouri, in 2018 and planned to eventually buy their building. Now, they may be forced to move again to make way for a large development and stand to lose the approximately $100,000 they say they poured into the building. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

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The Maiers, now in their 50s and 60s, are faced with the prospect of yet another move.

"At this point in our life," Carter said, "do we want to go through again what we did last time?"

Several business and property owners affected by the deal are suing, accusing the City of Brentwood of using a vague blight designation as a pretext to give their property to a private company. It’s a strategy local governments across the nation are using to skirt state eminent domain restrictions, according to their lawyers.

Kelo v. New London: The SCOTUS case that changed everything

A 2005 Supreme Court ruling allowed cities like Brentwood to seize property in the name of economic development.

The catalyst for the case happened around the turn of the millennium in Connecticut. After pharmaceutical giant Pfizer built a plant in New London in 1998 — with the added bonus of an 80% tax abatement — the city wanted to revitalize the surrounding area. Officials approved a development plan that required seizing homes and selling the property to developers to build new commercial and residential complexes. The city also agreed to kick in $78 million for the project.

Susette Kelo and other property owners sued and were represented by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm now representing the Brentwood businesses. They argued New London was violating the Fifth Amendment's takings clause, which prohibits the government from confiscating private property without just compensation. The property owners argued seizing their homes to sell to private companies was not a public use.

But in a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the seizure qualified as "public use" because the city was following an economic development plan, not just trying to benefit a certain group of private citizens.

"The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent. "Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

Outside of Convergence Body and Dance studio in Brentwood

Roxanne and Carter Maier operate a dance studio and chiropractic office out of a building on Manchester Road. They've moved locations a few times since starting their business in 2005, but planned to stay in their current location and eventually buy the building. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

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Within a year of the decision, local governments condemned or threatened eminent domain against nearly 6,000 homes, churches, businesses and other private properties, according to Institute for Justice researchers.

The Supreme Court ruling also triggered a nationwide backlash, and soon, 43 state legislatures and eight state supreme courts strengthened protections for property owners, including Missouri, where lawmakers passed a bill in 2006 specifying that property can't be seized solely for economic development.

But Missouri and other states included a carve-out that would prove critical. Cities could still move to seize blighted areas, defined by Missouri law as having "insanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements" or other factors that present "economic or social liability."

That broad definition can be used to condemn entire neighborhoods, even if individual homes or other properties are in spectacular condition, according to the state.

Institute for Justice attorney Bob Belden, who represents the businesses in their lawsuit, said cities across the country are taking advantage of "extremely elastic" definitions of blight.

"If you know anything about deterioration, by definition, the moment something is built, it starts to deteriorate," Belden said. "So one problem that we see cities exploiting is a sort of lack of concrete detail on what the blight factors are."

Brentwood officials declare area blighted, immediately threaten eminent domain

Deer Creek meanders through the area behind the Maiers' dance studio and chiropractor office. It used to flood during heavy storms, damaging businesses on Manchester Road. So Roxanne Maier said she wasn't all that surprised when, in 2018, the city deemed the area blighted.

"There were several properties in that time that were blighted," she said. "They were not really in the best condition, but they had flooded every once in a while, and people weren't going to be putting a lot of money into a building that would flood again."

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Then in 2019, the city launched a $95 million flood mitigation project, converting around 14 areas around the troublesome creek into green space. Officials at the time hoped that getting the area out of the flood plain would kickstart future development.

"It's beautiful," Roxanne said of the improvements. Carter said people are already walking and jogging on new trails by the creek, and that in addition to the flood mitigation, the city installed fresh sidewalks, street lighting and repaved a large stretch of the formerly deteriorating Manchester Road.

So the Maiers and other business owners were shocked when the city again deemed the area blighted and announced a plan to have Green Street, a major St. Louis development firm, replace the small storefronts with a new, mixed-use development. Property owners could either sell willingly or be forced out by eminent domain under the plan.

"I have to sell my property, and lucky you, you get a property that’s out of a floodplain, and the roads are done and beautiful sidewalks," one property owner said during an Aug. 15, 2022, public meeting, gesturing at representatives of Green Street sitting behind her.

Manchester Road development plan map

Plans for the Manchester Road redevelopment include a 30-unit condominium, a hotel, a 660 unit apartment complex, retail space and more. (Courtesy City of Brentwood/YouTube)

The city's original blight designation eventually expired, according to business owners.

Then in 2023, despite investing heavily in improvements, Brentwood officials again declared 77 acres of Manchester Road blighted, a slightly smaller section than the original 2018 boundaries.

"When they re-blighted it after they had done all these improvements, it made no sense," said Carolyn Wilson, who started a meal-prep business with her sister in 2004. "But it also made us feel extremely vulnerable and powerless."

A blight study the city published in 2023 listed few specific problem properties, but noted that about 60% of buildings were 52 years old or older, meaning they "likely contain hazardous materials and unsafe conditions."

Photos taken between 2022 and 2023 and included in a city presentation showed wooden pallets propped up near a trash can, seemingly-unoccupied buildings, loose bricks in a wall and parking lots with cracked or crumbling pavement. The city noted that newer buildings in the area needed fresh paint or other repairs.

Photos of cracked pavement, trash next to a can in Brentwood, Missouri

The City of Brentwood included these photos, taken in 2022 and 2023, in its blight study summary last year. The city had previously declared the area blighted in 2018, before starting a series of infrastructural improvements, including flood mitigation. (Courtesy City of Brentwood)

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The study also found that the private properties in "poor condition will generate less tax revenues than similarly situated properties in better condition." Therefore, the area "constitutes an economic liability," the city wrote in its presentation.

"It's bogus," said Bob Story, who runs Feather-Craft, a fly-fishing business his father founded in 1955 and has been located on Manchester Road since 1989. "This area looks exactly like every other area around here in Brentwood."

Story added, "It's all about the tax revenue."

The city declined an interview request and would not comment on the development plans or the lawsuit.

"Under the law, eminent domain is legal to address a blighted area," Brentwood Mayor David Dimmit said during a July 2023 public meeting. "That has always been part of the process."

He argued having a master redeveloper like Green Street take over the entire area would create a cohesive, thriving area, which wouldn't be possible by simply purchasing a few properties here and there.

Later that month, the Board of Aldermen approved an ordinance to redevelop around 40 acres of the area. Construction was scheduled to begin in 2025, and Green Street would need to acquire all the properties within the redevelopment boundaries, local media reported.

Bob Story stands inside his business, Feather-Craft Fly Fishing

Bob Story stands inside his business, Feather-Craft Fly Fishing, which has been located on Manchester Road since 1989. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

IJ's lawsuit alleges businesses in the area were never informed that their properties were considered blighted and that city officials never told the plaintiffs their properties could be seized. The suit further argues the city failed to present substantial evidence of deterioration or unsafe conditions and merely used the blight designation as a pretext to seize private property on Green Street's behalf.

Representatives for Green Street did not return multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment on the project. In proposals for the development, the company estimated the project would generate more than $266 million in new revenue over the next 25 years, including nearly $42 million in taxes for local jurisdictions and $51.6 million for the Brentwood School District.

But the company is also facing internal issues.

Green Street owes the city of St. Louis nearly $800,000 in delinquent property taxes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in December. Contractors filed dozens of lawsuits against the company, many of which have since been resolved, claiming they hadn't been paid for their work. And last year, the company laid off a half dozen employees, blaming "current levels of economic activity," the Post-Dispatch reported.

Green Street's lobbyist did not answer questions about the property taxes or other problems, local outlets reported.

The road ahead for business owners

"The case raises the question of whether anybody in the United States really owns their property if all it takes for the government to take it away from you is that the government can come by and think, ‘Well, I could probably use this property better,’" Belden, the Institute for Justice attorney, told Fox News Digital.

And while property owners will be paid if their buildings are seized, renters like the Maiers, Story and Wilson aren't entitled to much other than what's in their lease agreements and possible relocation assistance, Belden said. Wilson and her sister fear moving would make it difficult for their business to survive.

"We've been in our present location for 20 years, and we're well known in the area and everybody knows where we are," she said. "They're used to coming to our current location."

Belden sees echoes of the Kelo case, which he called one of the Supreme Court's "most widely reviled decisions," in the Brentwood fight, as well as a cautionary tale.

Crews tore down dozens of houses and bulldozed the New London neighborhood, but nearly two decades after the Supreme Court victory authorizing it, most of the land remains a barren lot.

Pfizer shuttered its plant just before its tax breaks expired, scrapping 1,400 jobs and moving its operations a few miles away to another campus to cut costs. Earlier this year, crews laid the foundation for a future community center on a small portion of the land. Other parcels have recently been sold to companies hoping to build apartments and a hotel.

"To this day, the property where [Kelo's] home used to sit is vacant," Belden said. "The only thing that has occupied the property there at any point has been feral animals."

Empty field with buildings in the distance

The neighborhood where plaintiff Susette Kelo's house used to sit remained a vacant lot for nearly 20 years after the city of New London seized it for a development that never materialized. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

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He sees Green Street's tax debts and other problems as a "harbinger of what's to come."

"You make on the front end all of these promises about what will come," he said. "And the only thing that comes from it is eliminating small or family-owned properties and businesses."

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.

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