November 30, 2020

University calls suit ‘last resort’

The lawsuit Webster University and Eden Theological Seminary filed against the City of Webster Groves is made up of two counts: the first count asks the court to review the City Council’s recent decision to deny Webster University a conditional use permit (CUP) to use university-owned property on Eden’s campus.

“This lawsuit was absolutely a last resort. I think we had pursued every other reasonable effort to come to an understanding,” said Webster University and Eden attorney Gerard Carmody.

Carmody said the university had a series of discussions with the city predating  the CUP application. He said the conversations accomplished nothing, which is why the university filed suit.

On Aug. 20, the Webster Groves City Council voted 4-3 against Bill 8804, a bill which would have allowed the university to use properties it purchased across Lockwood on Eden’s campus.

The city denied the bill after a vote from the city’s Plan Commission, which had unanimously recommended the CUP be granted to the university.

Webster University would like the court to recommend the city overturn its CUP denial. Carmody said if the city refuses to compromise, the second count applies: the university and Eden will sue for damages due to Eden’s alleged inability to use its own property as it sees fit.

Carmody said damages could exceed $5 million, near what Webster University spent on the properties. If the court ruled in Webster’s favor, the compensation for damages would go to the university.

“The main objective for both (Webster University and Eden) is to have the City Council decision overturned and to have the CUP granted, so we can occupy the space on their campus,” Carmody said.

Carmody said Webster University reached its “tipping point” when the city denied the university use of the properties, even after the university had cooperated with the City Plan Commission’s requests.

“That (Plan Commission’s) vote was ignored, we think, by City Council, which basically said ‘we don’t care, we’re going to deny it anyway, because we don’t want Webster University to use this property,’” Carmody said.

Carmody said the Council’s decision made the university feel as if the property was being taken from them.

Student Government Association (SGA) President Michael Grosch said he hopes the lawsuit will not affect the relationship between students and the community. Grosch said SGA  has made strides in the past months to promote community relations through its Community Engagement Committee.

Grosch said the lawsuit itself will not address the underlying problem between the city and the university.

“I think there needs to be some real, better and stronger communication between the two parts (university and city)  to alleviate some of the issues that are happening. I don’t think that will come out of (the lawsuit),” Grosch said. “Whether the court ruling is negative or positive, I don’t think (a solution) will come out of a court ruling … it will come out of people willing to sit down, discuss things and address issues on a more personalized basis.”

Carmody said Webster University and Eden are open to dialogue with the city, but stressed there is still a great sense of frustration from the lack of “meaningful process” towards a resolution on the expansion issues in City Hall.

“The best case scenario is to reach some sort of global understanding that allows for Webster University and Eden to continue their collaborative efforts … and for this continued animosity to stop,” Carmody said. “The fact of the matter is that these two institutions, Webster and Eden, are institutions that many municipalities would love to have in their communities, and would embrace.”

Carmody said he, as a Webster Groves resident, does not feel his fellow residents share the attitude of the City Council.

“I don’t think the city’s attitude and the city council’s attitude is shared by the constituents and residents of the city of Webster,” Carmody said. “I’m hopeful that residents would understand and appreciate the fact that the refusal to allow someone to use their property seems unreasonable.”

A group of Webster Groves residents have repeatedly expressed concern about the university’s future expansion plans and the effects it will have on the community’s character.

Maggie Sowash, of Joy Avenue, was one of several residents who spoke at the Aug. 20 City Council meeting. She said university expansion will negatively affect the community in the long run.

“Let’s look at what happened on Garden Avenue and let’s learn from that. I see that’s what’s going to happen at Lockwood and Bompart and Lockwood and Joy,” Sowash said. “Think about how this community will look five or 10 years from now when Webster University has taken over Eden Seminary CUP by CUP.”

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