Correction: This story originally quoted a Webster Groves councilmember as Tom Hart. The councilmember’s name is Kathy Hart. The Journal regrets the error.
Webster University and Eden Theological Seminary lawyers pleaded their case Friday, Feb. 21, to District Court Judge Mark Seigel in an ongoing attempt to overturn a Webster Groves City Council decision that denied the university use of properties it purchased on Eden’s campus.
Webster University purchased the properties in 2010 for $5 million.
The university and Eden filed suit against the city of Webster Groves on Sept. 18, 2013. After the city denied the university use of the buildings it had purchased.
A decision in favor of the university and Eden would allow the university to use two of the three buildings and demolish the third. A second count in the suit requested the university and Eden collect damages in excess of $5 million if the decision was not overturned. University lawyer Gerard Carmody recommended this count be dropped in the hearing on Friday, Feb. 21.
After two hours, Judge Mark Seigel asked the university, Eden and the city if there was a possible solution outside of the courtroom.
“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.
Webster Groves city attorney Helmut Starr suggested Eden subdivide the land so it would be considered a different lot. Then the University can reapply for the 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 this process could take three months, and that is if it all goes smoothly.
The five factors
City zoning code states 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 character of the community or overtax public utilities.
The council sited its reason for denying the CUP being the increased traffic and parking demand as well as damaging the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
At the hearing both parties focused heavily on the parking aspect of the council’s decision.
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 says that the evidence the council used to deny the CUP is fictitious and their denial was instead based on future concerns outside of the proposed CUP.
Carmody read a quote from council member Kathy Hart said during a council meeting on the CUP.
“The issue of (University) 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 more based in fear of University growth than of the five factors in the zoning code.
Hand in Mouth
Right now the three buildings sit vacant on Eden’s lot. Eden’s laywer Gerard Grieman said if they can not increase traffic to the area then they will continue to sit vacant.
“It’s going to mean that, in effect, it can’t be used for anything,” Greiman said.
Greiman said Eden needs to be able to sell of it’s unused buildings to make use of the campus and stay financially stable. Eden has not seen the growth it needs to sustain, Eden president David Greenhaw told The Journal in 2012.Greiman said that limiting Eden’s ability to sell land could harm the seminary.
“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 it’s corpse and use it as the Eden Seminary Museum and serve as a buffer (Between the city and the university).”
The next step
Both parties will submit a brief in support of their petitions by March 3, Starr said. In their petitions, the university and Eden have asked the court to overturn the CUP and, the city has asked for the case to be dismissed or affirm the council’s the decision. Seigel will review the petitions and make his decision. But Seigel said that regardless of what he decides, he expect the losing party will to 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.