The Missouri Supreme Court ruled today that evidence of social liability was not sufficient in a developer's attempt to seize "blighted" properties in a wealthy St. Louis area.

"The city's ultimate goals for the area cannot serve as probative evidence of social liability in light of the lack of evidence concerning the public health, safety, and welfare in the record," stated the court's opinion released today.

At issue was whether St. Louis redeveloper Centene Plaza Redevelopment Corp. (CPRC) could take properties in Clayton through eminent domain in order to demolish them. The developer had planned in part a $190 million mixed-use corporate plaza on the land.

Justice Ronnnie L. White dissented, writing, "In my view, Centene presented sufficient evidence from which the City of Clayton reasonably could have determined that the redevelopment area had become an 'economic and social liability.'

"This phrase demonstrates the legislature's recognition of the causal connection between economics and social welfare. A decline in the former inevitably undermines the latter, and I would interpret the statute as such."

The development had been held up by five property owners since 2005, despite the fact that local businesses support the 600,000-square-foot project. The Clayton City Council had declared the five properties on the construction site "blighted."

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Laura Denvir Stith wrote that "all agree" that Clayton is not a marginal or rundown community, but rather, vibrant and economically successful.

"This does not fit with the popular perception of what constitutes a blighted neighborhood, to wit, an area that is rundown and located in a marginal community, one that offers little attraction to businesses and, thus, must resort to incentives, including the opportunity to acquire property by eminent domain, to encourage investment," Stith wrote.

The buildings in question are empty despite occupying some of St. Louis's best-located retail property. The five owners helped form a local pressure group, Committee to Stop Abuse of Eminent Domain, aimed at stopping the Centene development.

Some local residents were already annoyed at the tax breaks already given Centene by the City of Clayton.

Rob Luke contributed to this report.

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