Nearly five years ago, Dom Gataletto was fighting to save his house against a powerful alliance of government and big business. Looming was the threat of eminent domain, a legal fulcrum whose purpose was to raze his house and the New Rochelle neighborhood his family had lived in since 1925 with a 325,000-square-foot IKEA furniture store.
IKEA aggressively bought up about 70 percent of the City Park properties, which included many small businesses, private residences and two churches, but Gataletto, who is 81 today, wouldn't sell at any price.
"Ultimately, I think I made the right decision," he said one day last week. "I feel comfortable here. Like I said to them, I want to stay here. I would do anything to stay."
Indeed, Gataletto and his wife, Virginia, did stay there.
That's because the city of New Rochelle ultimately declined to invoke its power of eminent domain — and IKEA went away. A failure to secure permission for building an exit ramp off Interstate 95 was the official reason for the pullout, but that may have been a face-saving excuse (literally an "exit strategy") for the mayor and City Council, who were caught off guard by an organized public outcry that painted them as villains in a Victorian-style melodrama.
Ever since the IKEA saga, I've written a number of columns about the disturbing evolution of eminent domain, which was originally conceived by the Founding Fathers to allow government to take private property for "public use." If not for the Fifth Amendment's allowance of a such right, many of today's bridges, highways and other important forms of public infrastructure would never have been built.
But over a span of about 50 years, the courts have inexorably changed the generally accepted justification of "public use" into a broader concept of "public benefit," a critical distinction that opened the way for local governments in fiscal crisis to condemn whole neighborhoods as "blighted" and turn them over to private, profit-seeking developers and corporations. The rationale is contained in a kind of trickle-down corollary that presumes the public would benefit from the jobs and tax revenue generated by the redevelopment. That was the thinking behind the gigantic IKEA project in New Rochelle's City Park.
By any definition, eminent domain for private benefit is corporate welfare. And it continues to spread at an alarming rate across the land, here and in most states.
According to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based group that has waged numerous legal battles against this abusive form of eminent domain, 1,000 (sic -- the Institute for Justice actually gives the number as 10,000) properties were targeted for condemnation between 1998 and 2002, but those stark numbers hardly tell the story of the individual lives that are disrupted or ruined by the heavy-handed process.
Virginia Gataletto recalled having many sleepless nights during the IKEA controversy. The stress became so intense that Dom Gataletto, a World War II veteran who fought at Anzio and in France, believes it may have contributed to a heart attack he suffered.
"I visualized the house being torn down," he said. "Where the hell was I going to go? I didn't want to pick up my roots and start all over again, if I could avoid it. And I did everything I could to avoid it."
After years of court battles (and sorry faits accomplis) over eminent domain, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide the issue based on a case from New London, Conn., which pits private homeowners in a working class neighborhood against a development that would bring in a riverfront hotel, health club and offices. For those who believe strongly in the constitutional protection of private property rights, just getting a hearing before the highest court in the land is considered a major victory.
Some of the human elements of the New London case recall the plight of the Gatalettos.
In her report, "Public Power, Private Gain," Dana Berliner, an attorney for the Institute of Justice, told of Wilhemena Dey, an 84-year-old who is trying to save the New London house where she was born. She told of another family going through its second ordeal with eminent domain. The first house they owned was condemned to make way for a sea wall, "but (the property) in fact became part of an office complex," Berliner wrote.
The Gatalettos said they are watching the Supreme Court case with interest; it is expected to go before the court in the spring.
Meanwhile, they've still got their house on Pleasant Street. They outlasted IKEA. The city backed down.
Nevertheless, the hard-nosed experience of fighting for their rights has left them wary — and understandably so.
"You never know," Virginia Gataletto said. "They could change their minds overnight."
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