Court to rule in university, seminary, Webster Groves city lawsuit
(KTVI) – Webster University, Eden Theological Seminary and the City of Webster Groves await the court’s decision on if it will overturn the city’s decision to deny the university use of property on Eden’s land.
During a court hearing on Feb. 21, Judge Mark Seigel asked all three entities if there was a way to work out the differences outside of court.
“I just want to know, is there a practical way (for the university to use the property) without delaying them another year and costing them money,” Seigel asked Webster Groves City Attorney Helmut Starr during the hearing.
Starr said there was a way, but that the university does not trust the city’s process.
Webster University and Eden filed suit against the city of Webster Groves on Sept. 18, 2013 in The Eastern District of the Missouri Court. The lawsuit asks the court to overturn the City Council’s decision to deny the university a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) which would have allowed the university to use two buildings on Eden’s property and demolish a third. The city denied the request at an Aug. 21, 2013 City Council meeting. Webster University purchased the three buildings in 2010.
Gerald Greiman, a lawyer representing Eden at the hearing,said that the city’s decision to deny university use of Eden property and its approval of ordinance 8753 in 2012 tied Eden’s hands. Ordinance 8753 placed restrictions on who Eden can sell and lease property to.
“Eden is operating under difficult circumstances and it needs to be able to realize the value from it’s 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.”
Eden has faced financial issues due to low enrollment the past few years.
When the university initially requested use of property on Eden’s land, the two institutions filed the application jointly. Starr said that since the two filed for use jointly, the application should have reflected uses for both Eden and Webster University.
The university’s proposed uses for the properties are as follows:
The Luhr Library – The university would use the space for Information Technology (IT), The Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence chess team and tournament room, as well as storage space. The building would occupy about 50 employees.
Wehrli Center – The university would use the first floor for The university’s Faculty Senate and Alumni Association. On a daily basis, two employees would be in the building. About every two weeks, 20-25 employees would use the space for meeting purposes. The second floor would be closed off and not used.
The White House – The university would demolish this building and replace it with green space.
The city denied these uses in August. If the IT center also served Eden, that would have potentially affected the council’s decision, Starr said. Starr suggested that the two institutions request for a sub division of the property. For that process, the city plan commission and Historic Preservation Commission would both have to approve the sub division before sending it to the council for approval. Starr said the process could take anywhere from two to five months.
Greiman called the other processes Star suggested a red herring.
The city must establish that at least one of five factors were caused by the CUP request to lawfully deny it. The five factors that govern the city’s decisions for requested uses are:
- Substantially increase traffic hazards or congestion;
- Substantially increase fire hazards;
- Adversely affect the character of the neighborhood;
- Adversely affect the general welfare of the community; or
- Overtax public utilities.
A university attorney said the city does not have substantial evidence that any of these five factors are affected by Webster University’s use of Eden property. The city said its decision to deny the application was because evidence suggested that the proposed uses would substantially increase traffic and parking congestion and could potentially alter the character of the neighborhood.
Residents and City Council members have discussed the university’s boundaries at public hearings for university requested uses over the past year. At the Aug. 21 City Council Meeting, Council Member Kathy Hart said Webster University’s boundaries have always been an issue for her.
According to court documents of the city’s record, Hart said at the August meeting that she would “support (the proposed) uses (of the vacant buildings) if there was some certainty that that is it, and these are the boundaries that we’re going to live in. And we’re not — we don’t have that.”
At the hearing on Feb. 21, the parties involved discussed motions to dismiss both counts of the suit. The first count calls for the overturning of the City Council’s decision regarding the CUP. The second count requested that if Count I is dismissed, the university collects damages from the city. During the Feb. 21 hearing, lawyers representing the university volunteered the dismissal of Count II.
Information on Seigel’s decision regarding both counts of the suit and if he will need further information from the three entities should be available next week.
Seigel said he expects there to be an appeal from one of the three entities involved no matter what decision he makes.