by Victoria Heldt
City of Maryland Heights, Missouri v. Robert J. Heitz and Loretta Tucker
(Missouri Court of Appeals, November 1, 2011)
Heitz and Tucker have owned a 12-acre piece of property in Maryland Heights, Missouri since 1961, when it was surrounded by vacant land. Heitz constructed a building to house Heitz Machine and Manufacturing and built a private drive down the center of the property that ran from Dorsett Road to the building. Subsequently, Interstate 270 was constructed to the west of the property and developers showed an interest in purchasing it for commercial or retail use. Heitz showed no interest in selling the entire parcel, but came to an agreement in the early 1980’s with Charles Drury, Sr. that provided Drury two and a half acres of land on which to build a Drury Hotel in exchange for Heitz becoming a limited partner in the venture. The construction of the hotel still left a portion of Heitz’s property vacant along Dorsett Road.
Heitz continued to receive offers to purchase the remaining land including one from Mr. Drury who expressed interest in building another hotel on the remaining portion of the land. It was his custom to convert older Drury hotels into Pear Tree Inns and then construct a new Drury Hotel nearby. Another offer was received from the Edward D. Jones Company which had developed a North Campus in Maryland Heights. The campus covered 50 acres of land to the southeast of the intersection of Dorsett Road and Interstate 270. Edward D. Jones wanted to expand but was unable to do so due to the current configuration of the Dorsett-270 intersection. The intersection next to the Jones campus (Dorsett Road and Progress Parkway) was very near to Interstate 270 and caused traffic congestion. Jones sought to relocate Progress Parkway and formed a redevelopment plan with the City in 2002 which included building a public road over Heitz’s property. Heitz claimed to have no knowledge of the City’s development plan. Jones made yet another offer to Heitz to purchase the property since he would need an entrance to his campus from Dorsett Road.
Eventually, a portion of the Heitz property was condemned. The private drive that the Heitz’s previously built that provided access to Heitz Machine would be made into a four-lane public road and two traffic signals would be constructed as outlined by the redevelopment plan. The City valued the property at approximately $1.2 million. Heitz disputed the valuation in the condemnation proceedings. Heitz felt the compensation was not sufficient. His property was less valuable from his perspective because Drury no longer had an interest in purchasing it for another hotel once the size of his remaining parcel was reduced. The City felt the plan actually improved the property’s value, and that thus the damages were excessive. Each party brought witnesses to testify to the value of the land. The court awarded damages of approximately $1.8 million to Heitz.
The City brought seven claims on appeal, the first regarding the court’s finding that a traffic light is a general benefit. They argued that it provided a special benefit and should be used to offset damages to Heitz. They purported that the stoplight increased the property’s “accessibility, visibility, frontage, and connectivity” and that it lessened the cost of future commercial development. Heitz argued that it did the opposite since it removed the property’s access to Dorsett Road. The Court found that it was indeed a general benefit for three reasons. First, a special benefit is derived from the specific location of the improvement. Since the benefit would still exist of the stoplight was placed elsewhere in the area, it is not specific. Second, the Court found that the traffic signal is a “secondary, necessary byproduct of the construction of the road,” so it is unable to confer an individual, specific benefit. Third, the stoplight did not result in a vested right since the City could remove it whenever it saw fit. For those reasons, the benefit could not be construed as special.
The City’s second argument challenged Mr. Drury’s testimony, inasmuch as Heitz failed to list him as an expert witness. The Court found Drury did not need to be classified as an “expert witness” since he was merely discussing his prior dealings with Heitz and his knowledge of that specific piece of property. The remainder of the City’s complaints challenged the admissibility of other expert witnesses and claimed errors in Heitz’s cross-examination and closing argument. The Court denied all remaining points and affirmed the condemnation award.