Effort afoot to revisit eminent domain; protesters rally in New London: (NY NY) Newsday, 7/5/05

By Susan Haigh, Associated Press

The top Republican in the [Connecticut] state House of Representatives gathered support Tuesday for a bill that would ban eminent domain for economic development projects.

House Minority Leader Robert Ward, R-North Branford, collected about two dozen signatures from House members, including Republicans and some Democrats. All of them support voting on the legislation during a possible summer session planned in the coming weeks to consider bills vetoed by the governor.

Ward's staff said he needs 76 co-sponsors for the bill to be taken up. But Democratic legislative leaders said they are not certain that would guarantee a debate on the legislation. Some Senate Republicans have also said they want a special session.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, announced Tuesday that she supports Ward's efforts to have the General Assembly call itself back into session to deal with eminent domain. Rell has not said whether she would use her powers to call lawmakers back to the Capitol.

Ward's effort comes in the wake of last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows New London to seize 15 homes in its Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make way for a private riverfront economic development project. The 5-4 decision broadens the eminent domain power, granting local governments greater rights to seize private property to generate tax revenue.

But the court also ruled that states can restrict that power. At least eight states — Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and Washington — already forbid eminent domain for economic development unless it is to eliminate blight.

"We have an obligation as elected officials to protect the rights of property owners and we must act swiftly before more rights are trampled upon to accommodate some developer looking to make a profit," Ward said in a written statement.

Fort Trumbull residents and their supporters rallied Tuesday at New London's city hall to call attention to their case.

About 300 protesters, from as far away as Kentucky, Maryland and New Jersey, gathered in advance of a City Council meeting at which residents asked that the decision to take the property be reversed.

Susette Kelo, whose unsuccessful lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the court's decision "should scare a lot of people."

"Minorities and middle class people will lose their property rights and rich people, too, because there's always somebody richer than you."

The City Council heard comments from residents and others, but took no action Tuesday.

Councilwoman Margaret M. Curtin, who said she's received e-mails from around the United States denouncing her as a communist and a Nazi, defended the actions by city officials.

"The biggest part of this community believes that what we've done is proper," she said.

New London resident Bill Cornish told city officials they should be ashamed.

"Shame. Shame for allowing this eminent domain to continue this long," he said. "Turn this mess around. Let our neighbors live in their homes."

Ward, the Republican leader of the House, had proposed a bill during this year's regular legislative session that would have restricted the use of eminent domain, but the bill died in the Judiciary Committee. Last week, Republicans attempted to resurrect the issue during a special session, but Democrats who control the legislature argued that lawmakers should wait and draft a comprehensive bill during next year's regular session.

"It's certainly an issue we're going to be working on, whether it's in the veto session or not," said House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden. "I want to hear from the people. I know I want to hear from my constituents. Right now I'm not prepared to vote on it. I need to know more."

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said he prefers to wait until February, when the next regular legislative session convenes.

"This is no different than what we were addressing during the special session," he said. "It's a very complicated issue that we want to look at as part of the regular committee review process, with due care and consideration, and not be rushed into by a press release."

Ward, an attorney, said his bill is based on months of research by his staff and himself. His proposed changes would strike the section of existing law that allows development agencies, with local approval, to acquire property by eminent domain.

His bill would not affect government's ability to take private property in blighted areas.

"The effect of these changes would be to prevent the unfair taking of private property for the purpose of economic development, while at the same time preserving the rights of municipalities and the state of Connecticut to acquire property under eminent domain for true public use," Ward said in a letter to his fellow House members.

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