Sunset Manor task force to meet Saturday at Sunset Hills City Hall

By BURKE WASSON

With no end yet in sight for all sides of the failed Sunset Manor redevelopment project, its residents and the Sunset Hills city government will have the opportunity to work together this Saturday.

The first of the city’s four scheduled Sunset Manor task force meetings will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday at City Hall, 3939 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

Task force Chairwoman Pat Otto, who was appointed by Mayor James Hobbs to select eight members, said the group will meet a total of four times — twice this Saturday and twice on March 18 — to discuss Sunset Manor residents’ goals for the community.

The eight task force members are: Jane Treppler, Kary Kew, Jason Dugger, Bob Wayne, Jane Chickey, John Buckholz, John Lakebrink and Keith Doder. The task force members are residents who have been affected by the Sunset Manor project, but have not filed a lawsuit against the city. Hobbs said anyone with a lawsuit filed against the failed project’s developer, Novus, still could serve on the task force as long as they do not also file suit against Sunset Hills.

While all task force sessions are open to the public for attendance, Otto said only particular groups of Sunset Manor residents will be allowed to speak at each meeting. The first such group, which will have the opportunity to be heard from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, will be residents of Deane Court.

“People can come to any meeting,” Otto said. “But the people who are going to be allowed to speak (at the first meeting) will only be Deane Court. And they’re going to be seated in the front so that we can say exactly who is Deane Court and what they would like. Then, we’ll go north street by street.”

The group’s second meeting is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday and will be designed for residents of Floralea Place.

On March 18, the task force will resume its fact finding from 9 to 11 a.m. 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. March 18 for business owners on Watson Road, landlords who own rental property in Sunset Manor and any absentee owners of homes in the blighted subdivision.

After the meetings are completed, the task force’s eight members then will assemble the residents’ major ideas and submit them in April to the Board of Aldermen. But to share these concerns with the city government, Otto said the participation of people who have been affected by the Sunset Manor debacle is absolutely necessary.

“We want people to come in and spend two hours with us and have them problem solve what they would like to see happen in their neighborhood,” Otto said.

Droves of residents have already spent countless hours trying to develop solutions for Sunset Manor through the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab committee.

The group, which met Feb. 27 at the Holiday Inn Viking Conference Center in Sunset Hills, has been in the process of helping residents left with either dilapidated homes or two mortgages to file lawsuits seeking damages from both Novus and the city. Two such pending lawsuits involve Sunset Manor residents who took $1,000 in earnest money from Novus in September and also those who did not.

Attorney Paul Ferber, who is representing several Sunset Manor residents in the lawsuits, contended that residents who accepted earnest pay from Novus still are entitled to more damages because nothing was expressly written in the residents’ contracts with Novus that they could not sue for damages later.

“The basis of that lawsuit is that Novus and you developed somewhat of a confidential trust-type relationship,” Ferber said to many of the residents during the Feb. 27 meeting. “You relied on what they said. And based upon that, they misled you because I will guarantee you that not one of you that went to pick up that $1,000 check on Sept. 30 heard (Novus President) Jonathan Browne say to you: ‘If you take this $1,000, you can’t sue for anything else.'”

As for the people who did not accept $1,000 earnest money from Novus, Ferber said they definitely are entitled because of a clause in their contract with Novus. He said in the contract, there is a provision that states Novus representatives can breach the agreement and still sue residents. On the other hand, if residents breach their contracts with Novus, they are only covered by liquidated damages set at $1,000.

“It’s our position and our legal research reinforces that this is not an enforceable clause,” Ferber said. “The reason it’s not enforceable is because the courts say if the damages are hard to determine, then liquidated damages are OK. In our case, the last page says the appraised value of (residents’) property is X dollars. Novus is offering Y dollars. That difference between the X dollars and the Y dollars is the amount we are asking for as damages.”

With each lawsuit, Ferber said attorneys also are seeking punitive damages from Novus for allegedly withholding information from residents. He cited Sunset Manor homeowners’ August meeting with Novus in which the developer’s representatives told residents they are going to close the development, forcing people to buy replacement homes.

“There was never, ever, ever financing in place to buy (residents’) properties,” Fer-ber said. “Never. So we’re asking for punitive damages because of that withholding of that information and misleading.”

Under Missouri law, the maximum allowable punitive damages sum per person is $500,000.

But more than filing lawsuits and drafting ordinances, Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab spokesman Will Aschinger said he simply would like city officials to remove any uncertainty for Sunset Manor homeowners so they can repair their homes to either sell or continue to live.

“We believe the city needs to remove the development cloud and give the property owners the comfort level that they’re not going to be burdened with another development or pie in the sky,” Aschinger said. “It will also let everyone know who’s interested in the area that wants to be in the Lindbergh School District that this area is open for business. In other words, if you want to sell your home, you can sell it to the open market when you want to without having to diminish your neighbors’ property rights and find out if a development is going to come by and scrape everybody’s property.

“We’re behind rebuilding this neighborhood. We’re behind trying to get the state to remove the development cloud and take action to help this neighborhood out rather than throwing it to the developers that could be looking at it. You’ve got other developers that are probably licking their chops waiting to come in.”

Browne was unable for comment before press time.