Eminent domain case goes to high court — The Stamford (CT) Advocate, 11/6/04

By John Nickerson

The city's [Norwalk's] eminent domain case against Maritime Motors car dealership isn't over yet.

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court agreed to review the case in which the city's Redevelopment Agency is trying to force the sale of the dealership and its storage lot to Stamford-based Reed-Putnam developer Fred F. French.

The city has been on the winning end of the case, which for 16 months has wound its way through Superior Court and the state Appellate Court.

Sometime next year, the Supreme Court will hear legal arguments unless the case is withdrawn or otherwise resolved, said Rhonda Sterley-Hebert, spokeswoman for the state Judicial Branch.

During of the legal battle, the city has said that the two parcels totaling 1.6 acres are essential to developing Riverwalk, the largest portion of the Reed-Putnam urban renewal plan.

Within the 13-acre Riverwalk site, bordered by West Avenue, Interstate 95 and Metro-North Railroad's Danbury Branch line, the city plans to build four office buildings that will bring an additional 1 million square feet of office space to Norwalk.

But Fred F. French and Maritime LLC, the owner of the dealership at 51 West Ave. and storage lot at 31 Putnam Ave., have been unable to arrive at a selling price.

A month ago, Maritime attorney Michael Taylor of the Hartford-based Horton Shields & Knox law firm petitioned the state Supreme Court asking for an appeal.

Yesterday, Taylor said he was optimistic.

"I'm thrilled that they picked it up. I think its a recognition that our argument is a strong one. Several justices seem to have a concern about the Appellate Court's decision," Taylor said in a telephone interview.

Taylor based his petition to the Supreme Court on two legal points.

The first questions the city's legal right to take the dealership and storage lot simply because it fails to conform to the urban renewal plan's stated objective of locating more office buildings on the site.

"If you have a building, they are not supposed to take it unless they make every effort to integrate it into their plan. The bottom line is they are supposed to keep the good buildings," Taylor said.

Taylor's second argument is that when the plan, which was approved by the Common Council in 1983, came up for amendment in 1998, the city should have advanced a new finding of blight for the area. He believes that with all the improvements made to the plan area over the intervening 15 years, the blight was gone and therefore the plan was complete.

Jonathan Bowman, who is representing the city in the legal battle, acknowledged that eminent domain is a hot issue for the state Supreme Court, but said his case will prevail.

He said the city has made, as it is legally required to do, a "reasonable" effort to include the dealership and its storage lot in the plan. But because the properties are clearly in the way of an expansion of West Avenue and an extension of Reed Street, it would be unreasonable to reconfigure the entire development to suit Maritime Motors.

As for Taylor's blight argument, Bowman said he is unconvinced. Bowman works for the Bridgeport law firm of Cohen and Wolf.

By Taylor's logic, Bowman said, making gradual improvements within an urban plan area would be the kiss of death to the legality of any future amendment. "It's a red herring," Bowman said.

Bowman said he believes that the court decided to take up the case because it wants to weigh in on the issue of how redevelopment plans are allowed to operate in a blighted area.

But one decision by the Supreme Court involving a Stamford diner may raise questions about Norwalk's case.

In 2002, the Supreme Court threw out the condemnation of Curley's Diner on West Park Place in Stamford because the redevelopment agency relied on an outdated finding that the area was blighted.

The court's unanimous decision said a redevelopment agency cannot "make an initial finding of blight and rely on that finding indefinitely to amend and extend a redevelopment plan to respond to conditions that did not exist, or to accomplish objectives that were not contemplated at the time that the original plan was adopted."

To do so, the court said, would confer such agencies with "an unrestricted and unreviewable power to condemn properties" and convert "redevelopment areas into their perpetual fiefdoms."

In 1988, the diner was placed in a redevelopment zone first designated in 1963.

But Bowman said the Curley's Diner case does not apply because the Maritime Motors' properties were always part of the Reed-Putnam redevelopment plan. The 1998 amendment reconfigured the plan, but didn't add new properties.

The Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com