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George Orwell’s novel 1984 depicted a society in which the state assigned incongruous meanings to common, every day words. The government operated what it called the “Ministry of Truth,” which occupied a gigantic building adorned with the slogans: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” Documents that were to be destroyed were put into so-called “memory holes.”
Although Missouri today is not an Orwellian society, some state and local governments have given some words definitions that won’t be found in dictionaries and are contrary to common usage and common sense. Take, for example, the word “boat.” Most of us picture something that floats, ranging in size from a canoe to a large yacht. Under the Missouri Constitution, however, a multi-story building that houses a casino near a major river is said to be a “riverboat.”
The evolving definition of the word “blight” is even more curious. According to most dictionaries, “blight” refers to diseases that kill plants. This was the meaning that prevailed in Elizabethan England and is commonly understood today… except in the City of St. Peters. There, the diseases that kill plants are not what constitute blight. No, it’s the plants themselves, including hundreds of acres of healthy, robust corn.
This surreal exercise in rewriting the dictionary began over ten years ago when St. Peters adopted a comprehensive plan that encouraged development in the floodplain of the Mississippi River… a goal of dubious merit for a number of reasons. In order to provide tax incentives for the development, the City declared that over 1600 acres of productive farmland were blighted.
The acreage in question includes some of the most fertile land in the world. The farms on this land help make agriculture a major component of Missouri’s economy. According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the agricultural sector contributes more than $12.4 billion per year to the gross state product. Agricultural exports from Missouri amount to approximately $2 billion per year. Is it possible that such an important economic driver is actually considered a source of blight? Is all of the productive farmland in Missouri regarded as blighted or just those parcels coveted for development by the City of St. Peters?
In response to the City’s actions, some local farmers and other property owners filed a lawsuit challenging the designation of this land as blighted. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City. The property owners appealed this ruling and prevailed in the Missouri Court of Appeals. The case went back to the trial court, which again ruled in favor of the City. The property owners appealed again to the Court of Appeals; and the case could easily end up being decided by the Missouri Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court accepts the position of the City of St. Peters, the term “blight” will have a new meaning never contemplated by the editors of most dictionaries. Consider the possible impact on popular culture. Will future performances of the musical “Oklahoma” include a revised version of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics? Will it now be the blight that’s as high as an elephant’s eye and not the corn? Will it be necessary to change the opening lines of “America the Beautiful”? Will America now be beautiful for spacious skies and amber waves of blight? The implications are almost Orwellian.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.