2/25/2005

Eminent domain on the docket: Bogalusa (LA) Daily News, 2/25/05

By Eleanor Davis

Yesterday, a New London, CT-based fight over eminent domain was handed to the U.S. Supreme Court that could determine the future of governmental seizure of property for economic development. Meanwhile, residents in the Oak Grove Community are fighting their own battle.

Last month, Oak Grove was selected by the Washington Parish Reservoir Commission as the site for a proposed reservoir, touted as a source of potable water and economic development for the parish.

Liz Stokes is the spokesperson for a group of concerned residents in and around the area who fear their homes will be taken by the reservoir for public and private use.

"We're trying to organize to best use our time and energy in order to stop the reservoir," Stokes said.

Stoke meets with approximately 50 concerned residents on a weekly basis to use their energy in fighting the reservoir. Although the group is not opposed to economic development, Stokes said they find the Oak Grove community to be an unsuitable site.

One concern Stokes has is the possible runoff from a nearby landfill site. "Where I live is right down the road from the landfill," Stokes said, "and the landfill runs into the creek that will be in the lake. I don't think anybody wants to drink anything off of garbage," she said.

The reservoir must be constructed within the provisions of the Clean Water Act, which disallows the release of any pollutants harmful to fish and wildlife into navigable waters.

Stokes also said endangered species, including the gopher tortoise, could also be affected by the reservoir. Currently, Stokes is working with an independent group to "get them mapped out where they are."

Stokes is also doubtful that the reservoir is needed to provide drinking water in the area. "I've been told that…we're not in need of this water," Stokes said. "The ground out here's not going to hold water; where we live, water doesn't stay very long."

Stokes said the group would have little objection to a reservoir "if it would be in a smaller place."

"We don't want anyone to lose their land…that's unchristian, as far as I'm concerned," she said.

The Commission released a statement to The Daily News that Denmon Engineering would begin the process of identifying property owners affected by the reservoir. Although permission is required for engineers to be on site, Stokes said she was doubtful if any residents would welcome engineers with open arms.

"I've told people myself at the meetings to lock their gates," she said. "We're not going to give up even if they think we are, they've got another question coming."

An impending decision by the U.S. Supreme Court may impact the future of the reservoir project. Supreme Court justices expressed serious doubts yesterday whether the court has the authority to protect some residents in New London, CT who face losing their homes to the city's ambitious program for economic revitalization.

Susette Kelo and several other homeowners filed a lawsuit last week after city officials announced plans to bulldoze some residents to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices. The residents refused to move, arguing it was an unconstitutional taking of their property.

The case's outcome will have significant implications for so-called eminent domain actions.

However, as the town has "gone down and down" economically over the years, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, and the economic benefits of a property seizure could make up for lost revenue.

There have been over 10,000 instances in recent years of private property being threatened with condemnation or actually condemned by government for private use, according to the Institute for Justice. The group represents the New London residents who filed the case.

The issue revolves around whether a government is serving a public purpose when it uses its power of eminent domain to take land. The Fifth Amendment prohibits taking private property for public use without just compensation. The New London is not about the amount of compensation being offered, but whether the government can take the property at all.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has deferred to the decision-making of elected state and local officials.

The court said in 1954 that it is legal for urban renewal to encompass non-blighted commercial buildings in a blighted neighborhood. In 1984, the court upheld Hawaii's land reform law that broke the grip of large landowners, with property being taken and then resold to others.

More recently, many cities and towns have been accused of abusing their authority, razing nice homes to make way for parking lots for casinos and other tax-producing businesses.

New London, a town of less than 26,000, once was a center of the whaling industry and later became a manufacturing hub. More recently the city has suffered the kind of economic woes afflicting urban areas across the country, with losses of residents and jobs. City leaders say the private development will generate tax revenue and improve the local economy.

"The undisputed facts regarding the steady deterioration of New London's economy from the 1970s onwards demonstrate the dire need for such a development project," the city told the court.

The New London neighborhood that would be swept away includes Victorian-era houses and small businesses that in some instances have been owned by several generations of families.

Among the New London residents in the case is a couple in their 80s who have lived in the same home for over 50 years.

City officials envision a commercial development that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast Guard museum.

Meanwhile, Oak Grove residents continue looking into preventing the state's use of eminent domain to construct a reservoir that has been promised by reservoir consultant Mike Thompson to bring recreation and tourism to the area.

"What it all boils down to is a pleasure lake for the rich and famous," Stokes said. "We may be rednecks out here, but we're not stupid."


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