Eminent Domain Is Not Simple: Town Times (Middlefield CT), 7/16/05

From The State Capitol

By Tom Gaffey, State Senator

Last month's Supreme Court ruling allowing New London to go forward with its power of eminent domain to seize private property for the purpose of economic development trespasses onto legal ground where I don't believe government has any business whatsoever. There is already a strong, swiftly moving, bipartisan effort among my colleagues to tighten Connecticut state laws to prohibit what I consider to be such over-reaching in the future.

Let me be clear: in my opinion the principle behind eminent domain statutes is a sound one. Throughout the history of both Connecticut and the United States important public works projects are the result of judicious use by government of eminent domain to adequately compensate landowners for property that is then transformed into things like railroads, highways and comparable, public sector development.

The difference in this New London case is that the city intends to seize privately-held property (albeit with compensation for the owners at fair market value), and transfer it through a quasi-public agency expressly set up for the project, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), for another private development, all in the name of economic development.

Regardless of the extent to which investment in economic development projects is for the greater public good, and there are many, many instances when this is the case, the New London plan is for the purported tax benefits of the planned development where the greater good is not guaranteed and only projected, and in the private sector besides.

This important distinction in the New London proposal is the reason the legal challenge to it progressed through state and federal courts and wound up on the docket of the highest court in the land. And in my opinion, none of this yet adequately addresses the matter of what could be described as money laundering through the NLDC to benefit a private developer.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the dissenting opinion in the narrowly divided (5-4) decision, succinctly described the major problem with the New London plan. "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," she wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."

With this ruling my fear going forward is that homeowners statewide are at risk anytime officials of a municipal government decide there are potential economic or employment benefits from changing the character of a neighborhood from residential to commercial or industrial for a shopping center or business park or comparable project. In my mind this sets a very dangerous precedent.

In the wake of this decision, I'm eager to work with my legislative colleagues to revisit Connecticut's eminent domain statutes and work toward tightening their provisions. I'm confident we can do so while preserving their original, and justifiable, intent.

I don't, however, believe this should be attempted in a knee-jerk reaction to the June 23rd ruling, as some have suggested. In my view, we have a first-rate committee process through which members of the public can weigh in through public hearings, staff members can do the extensive research a complex issue like this one requires, and legislators can assess and debate the content of a bill as it moves through. I'm confident, and I expect, we will achieve this in a timely fashion.

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