Sunset Manor Task Force meeting draws Novus president

By BURKE WASSON

While the format of the Sunset Manor Task Force’s second weekend of meetings essentially was the same as the first, participants received an unexpected visit from the man whom many have slapped with lawsuits — Novus Development Co. President Jonathan Browne.

Browne said he was invited to participate in Saturday afternoon’s task-force session at Sunset Hills City Hall and produced an invitation letter dated March 9 from the city.

“I was a little surprised that I got the invitation,” Browne said. “But they sent it to me and said: ‘Be here.’ I don’t want to be accused of not responding. I felt some trepidation walking in here, you know. I don’t want to be the one that sparks controversy.”

Besides Browne’s presence at the meeting, controversy already was abundant in a variety of topics ranging from proposals for what to do with the 65-acre subdivision that was to have been razed for Novus’ MainStreet at Sunset shopping center to some participants’ complaints of the “kindergarten-like” nature of the meetings themselves.

Sunset Manor homeowners on Monica Drive, Rayburn Avenue and Spears Street expressed their concerns and ideas to the task force from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday. From 1 to 3 p.m., business owners on Watson Road, landlords who own rental property in Sunset Manor and any absentee owners of homes in Sunset Manor had their turn.

Task Force Chairwoman Pat Otto said the group will meet at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 8, at City Hall, 3939 S. Lindbergh Blvd., for a final time to “wrap up” the list of recommendations made by property owners. She has said that the task force is strictly a fact-finding group that will submit all proposals in April to the Board of Aldermen.

The majority of homeowners attending the Saturday afternoon meeting said they want a buy-out from another developer that would be more serious than Novus. Other concerns addressed by homeowners that will be considered by the Board of Aldermen are: providing tax abatements to help clean the subdivision, requiring landlords to bring their properties up to city code, seeking a government grant to improve the area, having the city provide some positive press releases concerning Sunset Manor to the media and requiring the city, Novus, the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab group and Westfield to share the blame for the subdivision’s current state and provide compensation for services to “clean up” Sunset Manor.

The majority of business owners who attended Saturday’s meeting felt that the most important issue was receiving just compensation if a new development arises and businesses have to move. Business owners also expressed concern to place a 10-year moratorium on eminent domain, make the city develop a final decision as soon as possible, require the city to support business owners who work in the city but don’t reside in Sunset Hills and allow all registered voters in the city to vote on all public developments.

Browne, who took part in the business owners’ small circle of discussion, wavered from the rest of the group by saying that his most important goal would be to increase the amount of tax increment financing, or TIF, for the project. He said if the development were to go forward, he would like all business owners and homeowners to reap the benefits of a larger pay-out.

“If we raise that, I can’t take it out of the project,” Browne said. “Remember what that is. I have to provide the money for the TIF. I have to go borrow all that money and I’m being authorized to go borrow more money and I’ll do it. Ultimately, I’m going to get it paid back through the taxes. It’s not city taxes. It’s taxes that come out of the development that I build. My TIF of 15 years, if that gets it done and makes everybody happy, I can live with that.”

But fellow business owners like Will Aschinger said Browne’s ideas strayed from the rest of the group and would cause even more damage to the area.

“Jonathan Browne was in our group, and I think what’s absolutely ridiculous was his request to move the development forward and raise the TIF so that everyone could get more for their properties,” Aschinger said. “He wants to have even a bigger TIF than the biggest TIF ever applied in St. Louis County. That’s his solution, and that’s ridiculous.”

Browne said his goals now are the same as they were when he first started the development — he wants to represent the will of the majority of the people in the subdivision and make the entire project “good for everybody.”

But some homeowners in the area have filed a number of lawsuits against Browne and Novus alleging they were misled by Novus during the entire span of the project.

While he can understand that people are upset, Browne lamented the fact that many of these debates swirling around Sunset Manor would have to be settled in court.

“I’m very, very distressed that someone would sue me for fraud,” Browne said. “We have been as up front and open with full disclosure to everyone. And that is a misrepresentation to the public. When you sue for fraud, it’s a legal issue. From what I’m told, if you don’t have anything to sue on, you can always sue for fraud because that opens the door for anything. Even if I didn’t do anything wrong in the contract, if I did it fraudulently, there’s always a lawsuit. That’s very difficult to prove. And what I think is a shame is that at least in the (lawsuit) I’m familiar with, the attorney filed an attorney’s lien on the property for one-third of whatever the property sells for. Well, why are all these homeowners thinking they’re going to get something? In fact, what has happened is people are finding that what (Novus) offered is above what anybody else will.

“I’m hearing that all the time. People saying: ‘I can sell my house, but it’s a whole lot less.’ That’s good. That’s where we wanted to be. We wanted to give you a premium. And now, those homeowners are going to have to get a third more than what I offered. And they can’t get my offer. So I think they’re going to end up with way less than they ever thought. It makes me a little angry that the legal world gets involved and scoops all the cream up,” he said.

As for any solutions that might come out of the task force meetings, aldermen will look at each proposal raised at the meetings during the month of April.

Task force member Jane Treppler, who also participated Saturday in the business owners’ discussion, said she would like people to realize that the task force itself does not make any decisions whatsoever concerning the future of Sunset Manor. That, she said, is up to aldermen.

“I just want to make the point that this board is not a decision-making board,” Treppler said. “It’s for recommendation and fact finding. It’s just to narrow everything down. It’s just a matter of finding out what fits with what. And basically, from the take I see, the businesses and the homeowners are for a redevelopment as long as there is just compensation to relocate as far as a homeowner goes. The business owners are very concerned with the time and money it takes to relocate, retool and rebuild. Those are the big things.”

Treppler said her family’s auto business has “slowed down quite a bit” with the subdivision debacle blowing around it, but emphasized that Treppler Auto Body remains open.

Saturday’s meeting marked the first time that a group of Watson Road area business owners had collectively met to discuss the future of the area, which Aschinger said was “comforting.” Aschinger said through his work with the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab group, he and several members are trying to contact area legislative leaders to schedule independent hearings concerning Sunset Manor “to come up with real resolutions” that he said the task force meetings cannot.

When the task force meets April 8 to assemble all of the concerns raised by Sunset Manor property owners, Browne said he might drive to City Hall once again if he is invited. But what he still contends — whether he is believed or not — is that the best way to get out of the mess would be to continue the project.

“This is, was and will only be a public/private partnership,” he said. “That’s the only way it can happen. A municipality and a private developer have to join together to get something done. The only way that’s going to happen is we have to act like partners. And we’re not being partners. There’s things that I haven’t held up at my end, and there’s things that the public side hasn’t held up on their end. The city is certainly capable, and the project is certainly viable. So it’s a very complicated set of steps, and they won’t get taken care of until we all sit down together and do them. We’ve been kind of saying: ‘You go do it all.’ We need to all get together. And I think that involves the 300 property owners, too.”