Residents ask Supreme Court to block eminent domain in New London: Newsday, 2/13/05

By Matt Apuzzo, Associated Press

Fifteen houses are all that remain of Fort Trumbull, a once vibrant immigrant neighborhood on the southeastern Connecticut shore. For years, bulldozers have been leveling houses to make way for a city's high hopes: a hotel and convention center, office space and upscale condominiums.

The homes, surrounded now by swaths of rutted grass and gravel, stand in defiance to the project. Refusing to sell or leave, seven families will go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 22, arguing their city has no right to take property solely in the name of economic development.

A hodgepodge band of seditionists, they come from a variety of backgrounds. There's an elderly Italian immigrant, a mechanic, a flooring supplier, a school audio-video worker and a former deli owner.

"It's quite an amalgamation of people to be taking this case where it's going," said Matthew Dery, who lives in one of four houses on a compound his family has owned since 1901. "It's a case of the rich eating the poor. Sometimes the poor are difficult to digest."

Leading the charge is Susette Kelo, a 47-year-old nurse and mother of five boys who bought her apricot-colored home in 1997. With a decorative outhouse in the front yard and wind chimes made of silverware, her house doesn't fit in the city's development plans.

"They have over 90 acres now," Kelo said. "It's more than enough room the build on. We never said they can't build. We just said, 'We want to stay."'

City officials say that's impossible.

"They just would not be compatible with all the other uses," said Edward O'Connell, an attorney representing the New London Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency behind the redevelopment effort.

He points to Byron Athenian's low-slung black house as an example: "You're going to put up a $20 million hotel next to that?" O'Connell said.

Besides, he said, if a few holdouts can force an entire city to remake its development strategy, cities could never make plans.

Whether building a highway, laying railroad tracks or eliminating blight, governments have long relied on eminent domain laws to allow them to take private property.

New York used eminent domain to improve Times Square, expand the New York Stock Exchange and build the World Trade Center. Baltimore replaced a downtrodden waterfront with a bustling harbor development.

But Fort Trumbull is not besieged by blight, poverty or crime and New London is not building a highway or government building. The Supreme Court will decide whether governments can take taxpayer property to encourage private development.

City officials say the taxes generated ultimately will benefit the public. They have worked to remake Fort Trumbull since 1996, when the Naval Undersea Warfare Center left town with its 1,400 jobs.

When pharmaceutical giant Pfizer opened a $350 million research center nearby that year, city officials saw an opportunity to create high-end housing, retail shops, a business park and a hotel.

All that was standing in the way were 115 homes.

Faced with the choice of a check from the city or a drawn-out court battle, most people took the money. Ninety houses were leveled, most almost immediately. Those that remain fall into two categories: people who simply won't leave and people who feel they're being cheated out of fair value for their homes.

"The sentimental holdouts are the more difficult to deal with," O'Connell said. "No matter what you offer, they won't consider that sufficient or appropriate. They're just not motivated by the logic of the marketplace."

Kelo says it's not about the money for her. She was raised nearby and when her children moved out, she wanted a house by the water. It's small but cozy, with a turtle shell and fly fishing rods decorating her living room and a painted metal milk can on her front porch. From there, she has a great view of the Thames River.

For William Von Winkle, Fort Trumbull is his retirement plan. He rents out two houses and lives in a third, a real estate investment that pays his bills. He spends his days repairing motorcycles down by the local fish market, checking on his properties and generally enjoying the view.

"I have it pretty well licked," Von Winkle said.

He said the city's offer doesn't account for the money he's making off his property and wouldn't allow him to buy a comparable lifestyle elsewhere. Ditto for James Guretsky, who also owns three houses he plans to retire on.

One of the toughest things for Dery to accept is the fact that New London doesn't know for sure what will replace his neighborhood. The city has a plan, but no developer is under contract to complete it.

But O'Connell said that will come once the land has been cleared.

"What they're saying," Dery said, "is that anything that we put there will be better than you."

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