Connecticut Homeowners Question Eminent Domain

by Terry Pristin

On a quiet peninsula that juts out into the Thames River of Connecticut, weeds and wildflowers cover the empty lots where 90 homes and small businesses once stood - among them the eight houses that used to separate Susette T. Kelo's tidy pink cottage from the blue house that Wilhelmina Dery's grandmother bought in 1901 and where Mrs. Dery and her husband, Charles, still live.

Ms. Kelo and the Derys are among seven property owners who refused to budge after city officials approved an economic development plan to upgrade their 90-acre waterfront neighborhood, known as Fort Trumbull, by creating prime office space, a hotel, 80 units of housing and a Coast Guard museum.

Because these people would not sell their property, the New London Development Corporation took title to it through eminent domain, a decision upheld in March on a 4-to-3 vote by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Fifth Amendment allows governments to take private property through eminent domain in exchange for "just compensation,'' but only when it is for "public use.''

Ms. Kelo, a nurse, who bought her two-bedroom house in 1997, said she and her neighbors were being swept aside so that wealthier people might replace them. She and Matthew R. Dery, a newspaper executive who lives next door to his parents, said real estate agents had appeared on their doorstep and told them they would have to sell their homes or lose them through eminent domain.

"How come someone else can live here, and we can't?" Ms. Kelo asked as sea gulls circled overhead and ferry boats to Block Island, R.I., and Orient Point, N.Y., were visible in the distance. "I'm being penalized for being a good resident."

But New London city authorities said the condemnations were justified because the city, one of Connecticut's poorest, had endured three decades of economic decline, including the recent loss of 1,900 government jobs, and had few options for increasing its tax base to help pay for schools and services. After officials persuaded Pfizer, the drug company, to open a $270 million research building on the site of a former linoleum plant, the adjacent Fort Trumbull neighborhood seemed ideally suited to attract additional investment, they say.

The neighborhood was already zoned for industrial and commercial use and had a sewage treatment plant, which was covered at Pfizer's request but still gives off odors. The United States Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which occupied 32 acres, closed in 1996. The state had agreed to spend $20 million to create a state park at Fort Trumbull, a mid-19th-century installation where Connecticut troops mustered during the Civil War before heading south.

Despite the Connecticut Supreme Court's ruling, the demolition of the properties has not yet occurred because the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law center in Washington that represents Ms. Kelo and the other homeowners, has asked the United States Supreme Court to review the case. The institute, which has been fighting eminent domain actions all over the country, argues that the case, Kelo v. City of New London, demonstrates how government authorities are increasingly abusing condemnation powers to enrich developers at the expense of homeowners and small businesses.

Legal battles like this one, and a recent Michigan case in which a landmark ruling was overturned, have captured the attention of developers and economic development officials. Maureen L. McAvey, a senior fellow for urban development at the Urban Land Institute and a former developer, said eminent domain was essential for assembling tracts of land for development. But she said the cases have had a cautionary effect, prompting many local officials to re-examine their procedures to make sure that they can clearly show how the public will benefit from a particular project. "Most local entities are looking at their ordinances and practices," she said. "They are getting smarter about how they use eminent domain."

The conflict over eminent domain has led to some unusual alliances, with libertarian groups like the Institute for Justice joining forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and Ralph Nader to oppose condemnations, and environmental groups lining up with developers and community development organizations. Environmental groups say that eminent domain powers must sometimes be used to promote "smart growth" - that is, denser development in older neighborhoods - as a means of reducing suburban sprawl.

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