Court Hands City Victory in Property Seizure Case

By John Nickerson

City [of Norwalk CT] officials are claiming a legal victory in their attempt to seize Maritime Motors as part of a massive urban renewal project, but the car dealership's owners are vowing to continue their fight.

In a 12-page decision released yesterday, the state Appellate Court affirmed the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency's right to condemn Maritime's two-story car showroom at 51 West Ave. and storage lot at 31 Putnam Ave.

The 10-judge appeals court unanimously upheld a Superior Court judge's 2003 ruling that the city acted within its rights to claim under eminent domain the property to make way for Riverwalk — the largest piece of the $350 million Reed-Putnam urban renewal project.

Peter Morley, owner of Maritime Motors, said yesterday it was "wrong" to use eminent domain to force out his business to make way for another, adding that he intends to take the fight to save his property to the state Supreme Court.

"It is everything to me. I don't take my responsibility lightly. I have to answer to all of my (33 full-time) employees," said Morley, who bought the properties in April 2000, nearly 17 years after the Reed-Putnam plan was adopted by the City Council.

"I'm not going to let them rob me," he said.

Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Timothy Sheehan said he was pleased by the court's finding.

"The court carefully considered each of the three areas that Maritime Motors appealed the lower court's decision on and I think we laid out a clear case that resulted in the affirmation of the lower court's finding," Sheehan said.

City officials have said throughout the 14-month legal battle that Morley's two properties are essential to developing the largest portion of the Reed-Putnam urban renewal area. Known as Riverwalk, the project calls for a 13-acre development of office buildings and retail stores just southeast of the Interstate-95 overpass at West Avenue.

According to state law, Morley and his Hartford attorney, Michael Taylor, have until Oct. 4 to petition the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling.

Taylor said the decision erodes property owners' protections against eminent domain and he is "strongly" advising his client to take the case to the next level. Eminent domain law allows a municipality to purchase land if it proves a public use that outweighs a landowner's property rights.

If the Supreme Court decides to review the case, it would be expected to render a decision before the end of the year, according to Jonathan Bowman, attorney for the Redevelopment Agency.

The court fight over the property stems from the inability of Morley and Riverwalk's developer, Fred French, to come to terms on the price of the two properties totaling 1.6 acres.

Timon Malloy, president of Stamford-based Fred F. French Investing LLC, said yesterday that Morley was offered the appraised value on the property plus a premium. Malloy declined to disclose the amount of that offer.

Plans call for using part of Morley's showroom property to widen West Avenue to provide two eastbound turning lanes onto Reed Street, which will be widened from two lanes to five. Morley's smaller Putnam Street storage property will be used to extend Reed Street to run under the Metro North railroad tracks, which will connect Riverwalk with the city's waterfront.

The appeal held that the city did not attempt to integrate Maritime's property into the redevelopment plan; that reasonable steps had not been taken to acquire the properties by negotiation; and a new finding of blight was needed in the area after the 1983 redevelopment plan was amended in 1998.

In its decision, the Appellate Court sided against Morley on each of the three issues.

The court noted that under the Reed-Putnam plan, property within the area cannot be used for an automobile showroom; as a result, the city had no responsibility to try to include such a building in the plan.

"To require a redevelopment agency to consider the integration of property that contains a prohibited use under the redevelopment plan would defeat the intent of redevelopment," the opinion stated.

The court also found that the Redevelopment Agency "exhausted all reasonable efforts to obtain the plaintiff's properties by agreement."

Finally, the Appellate Court found that the Redevelopment Agency was not required to make a new finding of blight when it amended the 1983 plan "because the modifications were not substantial."

When asked about the case going to the Supreme Court, Sheehan declined comment, except to say that he looked forward to engaging in dialogue with Maritime Motors on the settlement.

Sheehan would not speculate on what the city plans to do if Morley does not turn the property over.

Taylor, however, said he was "troubled by the decision."

"There are supposed to be safeguards to protect people from the government taking their property. And I think with this decision, the Appellate Court has substantially weakened those protections," Taylor said.

Specifically, Taylor said the court's ruling that the Redevelopment Agency had no responsibility to include Maritime Motors in its urban renewal plan simply because it was not an approved use was shortsighted.

"We say that is wrong. The check on the Redevelopment Agency's authority is gone if all it has to do is decide existing uses aren't in the plan area. . . . There is no limit to their authority," Taylor said.

Redevelopment Agency attorney Jonathan Bowman, said he believed the Appellate Court did not erode any landowner safeguards with the decision.

"I think the decision was correct on all three issues. And this is the second court to find the exact same way. These issues were raised at trial court. We now have four judges seeing it the same way," said Bowman, from his Cohen and Wolf PC office in Bridgeport.

Bowman added that if the Supreme Court were to take the case, they should have a decision a few weeks later.

"If they run out the string (of appeals), it won't take a long time here," Bowman said.

The Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com
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