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BenFred: Texas residents suffer as Kroenke re-enters relocation business

BenFred: Texas residents suffer as Kroenke re-enters relocation business

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Annette McNeil called the Post-Dispatch and left a message.

Something about Stan Kroenke stealing her home.

She answered her phone on the second ring.

"I've had better weeks," she said.

Perhaps you've heard of the Waggoner Ranch. They say it's the biggest ranch in America that is bordered by a single fence. I wonder who measures such things.

Anyway, a month after Kroenke got approval to move his Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles, the billionaire sports owner and real estate mogul made headlines by buying the 800 square-mile ranch that stretches across six counties in north Texas.

McNeil filled in the rest.

Over a 30-minute phone call, the dog groomer who suffers from arthritis shared a relocation story that will make Rams fans shiver.

She lives with her husband in a 90-year-old, renovated rock cabin on the shore of Lake Diversion, a waterfront community located on part of the ranch land near Wichita Falls, Texas.

Lake Diversion is a modest, close-knit neighborhood that trends toward the elderly and those with fixed incomes. Simple joys mean a lot here. McNeil feeds deer by hand. She attends annual chili cook-offs. She leaves her doors unlocked. These are the people being kicked to the curb.

Last week, McNeil and other Lake Diversion residents received notice that Waggoner Ranch will not be renewing the leases for their property. They've been told it's an attempt to return the shoreline to its "natural, uninhabited landscape to support and improve the microecosystem." Whatever that means. They've gotta go by February.

Residents like McNeil, who own their homes but have spent years renewing annual leases on the ranch land their homes sit upon, were told they won't be compensated for their houses. Anything they can't take with them before the deadline becomes property of the ranch.

"We can't pick up a rock home that was built in 1926, that we poured our lifetime savings into, that was our retirement home," she said. "I can't take that with me."

The hard question here is this: Why in the world would you buy a home on land you didn't own? McNeil attempted to explain something that never needed much explanation before. Yes, the leases for the land were year-to-year. No, the residents never imagined they would stop.

"We've got family members that have had leases out here for 50 years," McNeil said. "Texas is kind of a good old boy state. You take a man at his word. We've never doubted the Waggoners because we never had any reason to doubt them."

The residents felt they had an understanding with the ranch. They learned the hard way the ranch's new owner has different priorities. Compassion and Kroenke don't compute.

McNeil wonders if the thought of a man-made lake returning to its natural state sounds bogus to anyone else.

She fears for the deer, because she has a grim prediction that Kroenke's grand plan includes some sort of fancy hunting lodge.

She searches for a new place to live, knowing nothing she finds will feel like home.

"I'm going to miss the quiet," she said. "All I can hear is the waves lapping the shoreline.

"I live with a family of raccoons outside that I feed honey buns to every night. I have three deer that I hand feed, that come right to my driveway. I love all the birds.

"I'm a country girl. I love animals. I love living here."

Hundreds are in the same predicament. McNeil said a neighbor recently spent nearly $40,000 renovating his place. She said another finalized a cabin purchase just six months ago. She said another received sticker shock when he requested an estimate to move his small metal house: $10,000. They will be trespassing if they're not gone by the deadline. They expect their homes to be bulldozed.

McNeil hopes that the news, which has been picked up by USA Today, reaches someone powerful enough to stop what seems to be inevitable. That seems unlikely, though. If Kroenke is breaking any law, no one has found it yet. He is the master of fine print, litigation and loopholes. The people he's forcing out are not.

Kroenke has more money than a man could spend. He owns more land than a man could walk. If he can get a bit more of both at the expense of those who have neither, he won't hesitate.

It makes you wonder why any person or community — looking at you, Maryland Heights — would consider conducting business with the guy, or anyone associated with his greed.

Before our conversation ended, I asked McNeil why she contacted the Post-Dispatch.

"One of my Facebook friends said St. Louis hates him," she said. "He said, 'Call a St. Louis newspaper and share the story.' That's why I called. We're grasping at straws right now. I'll be honest with you."

So, I was honest with her. St. Louis knows how bad leases and Kroenke mix. And losing an NFL team hurts. But not like this.

We can curse Kroenke from the comfort of our own homes.

In six months, McNeil won't be able to do the same.

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