Cole County Presiding Judge Pat Joyce heard arguments Monday in a lawsuit where the Jefferson City Housing Authority is seeking to acquire seven properties in the East Capitol Urban Renewal Area through eminent domain.
Joyce ordered that final arguments and proposed judgments be submitted to her by March 5, after which she will rule on the case.
The properties are located at 500, 501, 507, 511 and 513 E. Capitol Ave., which are all residential properties, along with two lots, 504 E. State St. and 115 Jackson St.
All seven properties are owned by Barbara Buescher.
Housing Authority Executive Director Cynthia Quetsch, who testified during Monday's hearing, said the residential properties are unoccupied and boarded up, "detracting from the beauty of this historical area."
The Housing Authority seeks to acquire the houses to reduce blight in the area, Quetsch said. Once acquired, the Housing Authority plans to request proposals from developers to renovate them.
Quetsch said when the Housing Authority first tried to contact Buescher there was no response, but after a time Buescher called and said she had not received the notices the Housing Authority had sent her.
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"We then sent the notices, and many more, to the addresses she said she was getting mail at, but we never got a reply," Quetsch said. "We also got the notifications that the notices and other documentation had been delivered to the addresses she gave us and never got the notices returned back to us."
Those notices included proposals to purchase each of the seven pieces of property from Buescher, Quetsch said. The total for all seven was $259,000, determined based on appraisals the Housing Authority had done by a private firm.
Never hearing from Buescher, Quetsch said, the Housing Authority went forward with legal proceedings.
Also testifying at Monday's hearing was Sonny Sanders, Jefferson City Department of Planning and Protective Services director. He said his department often had been called to Buescher's properties in the area to board up vacant residences that had been broken into by trespassers. In some cases, he said, there was evidence fires had been set and drug activity had taken place inside.
Quetsch testified this would qualify as blight because the conditions of the properties posed serious risks to the health and safety of residents in the area.
The Jefferson City Council approved the East Capitol Avenue Urban Renewal Area, bordered by East State, Lafayette, East High — including some parcels on the south side of East High Street — and Adams streets in 2016 after a study deemed the area blighted because of deteriorating conditions of some properties.
John Brancoglione, a city planner with architect and planning firm PGAV of St. Louis, which was hired to do the blight analysis by the Housing Authority, said the areas they looked at included the seven properties in this case.
Their findings, based on exterior inspections, found numerous broken railings, some defective fire escapes, broken exterior floor surfaces, rotting eaves and failing roofs, Brancaglione said. They also found birds and possibly bats coming in and out of some properties, he added.
Their analysis of assessed valuations of the area showed 35 properties in the Urban Renewal Area, most of which Buescher owned or still owns, had lost $778,000 in assessed value from 2002-15.
Brancaglione said to remove the blight would require a willing buyer to take over the properties, and the Housing Authority plan would address this.
Thomas Snider, the attorney representing Buescher, pointed out Brancaglione's group's findings indicated there was never any major outbreak of illness in connection with any of these properties, nor were there any reports of injuries to people in association with these properties. He also noted some of the problems Brancaglione pointed out were due to street and sidewalk deterioration, which he said is something the city should deal with, not property owners.
Sanders said city code actually calls for property owners to take care of maintenance on sidewalks on their properties.
Brancaglione also said information they obtained from the Jefferson City Police Department shows from 2008-15, there were 142 crimes reported within the Urban Renewal Area, including arson, rapes and burglaries.
The Housing Authority took possession of two properties in the Urban Renewal Area last year after a year and a half of legal battles. Cole County Judge Dan Green signed orders allowing the Housing Authority to take possession of 101 and 105 Jackson St., owned by Buescher.