Sunset Hills task force meetings under way

By BURKE WASSON

When Sunset Hills Mayor Jim Hobbs developed the idea of forming a Sunset Manor task force, he said it was done to gather the concerns of property owners left in limbo in the troubled subdivision.

But several of those owners who attended the task force’s first meetings Saturday said their voices were muted in a nature often likened to a “kindergarten” class.

The first two of the city’s four scheduled Sunset Manor task force meetings took place Saturday at Sunset Hills City Hall, with residents of Floralea Place and Deane Court having the chance to share their ideas for the subdivision property that was supposed to have been razed for the Novus Development Co.’s MainStreet at Sunset shopping center.

Task force members Jane Treppler, Kary Kew, Jason Dugger, Bob Wayne, Jane Chickey, John Buchholz, John Lakebrink and Keith Doder heard a number of concerns from Sunset Manor homeowners. Task force members are required to own property at Sunset Manor and were selected by task force Chairwoman Pat Otto with the assistance of the Board of Aldermen.

But during and after the meetings, several property owners from Deane Court and Floralea Place also expressed additional concerns about the school-like nature in which their ideas were being collected.

Otto instructed the Sunset Manor property owners of each street that they must form “small circles” of four to six people and appoint a spokesperson for each of those groups. The groups were then told to list their concerns and have the group spokesmen take turns reading them one by one.

Only the group spokesmen were allowed to address the task force. Each idea posed by the groups was then written on one of three paper boards facing the audience. After all the groups had spoken, Otto then instructed residents to take their stickers off their name tags and place them next to the one issue they believe is the most important.

At the end of the session, the lists of ideas were collected and now are slated to go to the Board of Aldermen for consideration, which Otto and Hobbs have said likely would come in April.

When the procedure finally was completed, the majority of Deane Court homeowners addressing the task force believed that removing eminent domain from the city was the most important issue. Floralea Place residents’ major concern was having the city buy out their properties at Novus’ contract price.

Some other ideas for Sunset Manor that will be considered by aldermen include: developing a renter approval committee, razing distressed homes, moving forward with a new development with approved funding, having the city offer low-interest loans for property owners in need and allowing private builders to buy out homes that need to be improved.

While Sunset Manor property owner Will Aschinger said he feels strongly about many of these issues that were raised at the meetings, he also believes that the task force was an ineffectual and insincere effort by Hobbs and the Board of Aldermen to gauge residents’ concerns.

“This was all directed by the mayor and Board of Aldermen as a political move to get the heat off of them and to get the focus on what we’re supposed to believe that the residents want,” Aschinger said. “They’re stifling us from speaking.”

Otto, on the other hand, described both meetings Saturday as “very productive” and promised that each idea presented to the task force would go to aldermen.

But Sunset Manor property owners pointed out that the paper boards on which these ideas were written were facing the audience and were out of view from the task force members. Besides bemoaning the fact that task force members did not speak at the meetings, Aschinger also said he was bothered that only five to six property owners — the group spokesmen — were allowed to speak at each meeting.

Before Saturday’s 1 p.m. meeting for Floralea Place owners, Otto instructed the audience that the session was not an open forum by saying: “No clapping. No speaking out. No cheering. No jeering. This is not a pep rally. If you should disturb the peace of the meeting, officers will escort you outside.”

City police officers handed out name tags to each property owner who could show a letter of invitation mailed to them from the city. While Otto expressed disappointment that only an estimated 30 of 60 property owners on Deane Court attended the 9 a.m. meeting, some Deane Court owners said they were never mailed an invitation and therefore could not join the “small circles” of property owners allowed to express concerns to the task force.

Other property owners like Aschinger and Kathy Tripp said they were irritated by the manner in which the task force members were appointed. Otto said she selected each of the eight members “with the input of the Board of Aldermen. I wanted people who are quiet and willing to listen and trying to look at all sides of an issue.”

Aschinger said he does not believe the task force represents a wide array of people affected by the Sunset Manor debacle and is curious why people who have not been more vocal against the project were not included.

“(Otto)’s going to choose people who are going to be quiet and listen the most over someone like myself, who is passionately against this project?” he said. “Or anyone else like myself who is passionately against this project and had to take the city to court to prove that they were right? This project was flawed from the beginning. The city overstepped its authority and its boundaries and entertained this developer who didn’t have the money to pay for their properties.”

Tripp echoed these sentiments and believes that the task force is not the diverse collection of concerned property owners that city officials said it would be.

“I believe it’s a totally, totally partisan group,” Tripp said. “It’s not non-partisan. I believe that all sides of issues should have been represented. Not just those who sold. Besides, there are far more intelligent ways to assemble and get people’s opinions.”

On Saturday, the task force will resume its fact finding from 9 to 11 a.m. at City Hall by focusing on people who live on Monica Drive, Rayburn Avenue and Spears Street. The final task force meeting is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday for business owners on Watson Road, landlords who own rental property in Sunset Manor and any absentee owners of homes in the blighted subdivision.

Aschinger, who plans to participate in the 1 p.m. meeting as a business owner in the area, said he hopes that he will be allowed to voice his concerns. But he’s not counting on it.

“I think as an attendant (Saturday), I would like the ability to voice my opinion directly to the task force and not be forced to let a speaker do it for me from the kindergarten-like group that I plan on being in,” Aschinger said. “There is still no way for each individual property owner to state how they feel about this.”