September 28, 2016

University, Eden and city await judge’s decision in lawsuit

Judge Mark Seigel asked Webster University, Eden Theological Seminary and Webster Groves if there was a possible solution to the institutions’ lawsuit outside of the courtroom. The three entities pleaded their cases to Seigel at a Feb. 21 hearing.

“I just want to know: is there a practical way to solve this without delaying (Webster University and Eden) another year and costing them money?” Seigel said at the hearing.

Eden and Webster University seek to overturn an August 2013 city council decision that prevented the university from using property on Eden’s campus (See timeline below story).

Webster Groves City Attorney Helmut Starr said the university has continued to work independently of the city’s processes, which lead to the lawsuit and past miscommunications.

“I really think that, unfortunately, the city and the petitioners are like two ships passing in the night,” Starr said. “We, did not understand each others position as to what was going forward and what could legally go forward.”

Starr suggested Eden subdivide the land so it would be considered a different lot.  Then the university can reapply for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). Starr said the council would be more favorable if the land was subdivided, but could not guarantee it would be approved. Starr also said if this process goes smoothly, it could take three months.

If the judge decides in favor of the university and Eden it would allow the university to use two of the three buildings for offices and student activities and demolish the third to create green space. A second count in the suit requested the university and Eden collect damages in excess of $5 million if the decision was not overturned.

Seigel dismissed this charge on the recommendation of University lawyer Gerard Carmody. University lawyer Traci Pupillo told The Journal the count is not gone for good. Pupillo said that it was requested to be dismissed so the judge could make his decision on count one before considering count two. If the judge dismisses count one, the — The Wehrli Center would be used as an office and meeting center for the Alumni Association and Faculty Senate.

On Aug. 20, 2013 the city council voted to deny the university’s CUP, 4-3.

Previously, the Webster Groves City Plan Commission voted unanimously to allow the university’s proposal to move on to the City Council.

By law five factors must govern the cities decision. The council must deny a CUP if the proposal would substantially increase traffic congestion, fire hazards, adversely affect the character of the neighborhood, adversely affect the community or overtax public utilities.

The council cited its reason for denying the CUP being the increased traffic and parking demand as well as damaging the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

Starr said the University’s move to the buildings on Eden’s campus would potentially displace the university staff who currently park by those buildings on Eden’s property. Leading to more university faculty, staff and students illegally parking on side streets and causing congestion.

Carmody said the evidence the council used to deny the CUP is fictitious and their denial was based on future concerns outside of the proposed CUP.
Carmody read a quote from Webster Groves City Council Member Kathy Hart during the Aug. 20 council meeting on the CUP.

“The issue of (Webster) boundaries has always been the problem to me,” Carmody read from Hart’s quote. “I could support it if I knew there were boundaries.”
Carmody argued that the council’s rejection of the CUP was based in fear of university growth, rather than the five factors.

The university’s 2012 Master Plan states that the university plans to expand its undergraduate enrollment to 5000 students by 2020. This master plan does not include new construction on Eden’s campus and was not approved by the City Council.

The three buildings sit vacant on Eden’s lot, as well as another three owned by Eden. Eden’s lawyer Gerard Grieman said that since the buildings sit vacant any use would be seen as an increase in traffic. He said that would effectively make the buildings unusable by the city’s standards.

Eden faces continually decreasing enrollment. To cope with the dropping number, and in turn dropping revenue, the seminary has created a three-phase Master Pan, which it presented to the city in 2012. The final phase of the plan is to sell or lease the vacant buildings found around campus.

Greiman said Eden is currently unable to enact this phase and is thus being harmed by the city’s decision.

“Eden is operating under difficult circumstances and it needs to be able to realize the value from its assets to survive,” Greiman said. “What the city seems to be trying to do here is starve Eden of the resources it needs to live. Then take its corpse and use it as the Eden Seminary Museum and serve as a buffer (between the city and the university).”

The next step
Judge Siegel ordered both parties to submit briefs in support of their petitions by March 3. The university and Eden asked the court to overturn the city’s denial of the CUP and allow the university to make use of the property. The city asked that the court dismiss the charge completely or simply stand by the council’s decision.

After the briefs are submitted, Seigel will review all evidence and briefs and make a judgement. Seigel said regardless of what he decides, he expects the losing party will appeal the decision.
Seigel said his decision would not be swayed by whether he believed the university should have access to the land or not, but instead by the council’s actions.

“I view my role here as a very limited one. As I need to look at what transpired at the council hearing. And determine if it was decided upon competent and substantial evidence,“ Seigel said during the hearing.

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