Eminent domain law controversial, but not new: (Manchester CT) Journal Inquirer, 7/13/05

By Tom Breen

For nearly 40 years, [Connecticut] state law has allowed the seizure of property for private economic development under the principle of eminent domain.

But only in the last month has the law become a central focus of state politics — ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London can take homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for a private development project.

Connecticut politicians, ranging from longtime Republican legislators to "smart growth" advocates in the Green Party, have denounced the ruling and the law that led to it, and have called for immediate changes to the statute.

Such changes are possible since the court ruled that the right to seize property for private development isn't a constitutional right, but can be prohibited by state law.

At least eight states — Maine, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Montana, South Carolina, and Washington — already forbid the use of eminent domain for private development except in cases of blight.

Now, Republicans in the General Assembly are calling for a special session of the legislature this year specifically to handle the eminent domain question.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been more circumspect, calling instead for a voluntary one-year moratorium on municipal uses of eminent domain for private development, and plan to schedule public hearings as early as this month.

"In light of the Supreme Court decision, we all should be concerned about the jeopardy that private property owners have been placed in," Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the Planning and Development Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.

"But," he added, "unlike many, I would like to make the right response to the decision rather than merely a quick response. We need to take a comprehensive look at this issue to ensure that eminent domain is used properly in Connecticut."

However, as some point out, the General Assembly has been able to take just such a comprehensive look at the law since Lyndon Johnson was president.

Why the wait?

"This is not something brand new," Wesley Horton, the lawyer who argued on behalf of New London before the Supreme Court, said in a recent interview.

In his work for New London, Horton traced the law back to Public Act 760, known as the Home Rule Act, approved by the General Assembly and signed into law in 1967.

That law, which was modified slightly in 1972, allowed private companies designated as development agencies to "acquire by eminent domain real property located within the project area and real property and interests therein for rights-of-way and other easements," while acting in the name of the municipality.

Although the law has been in place for 38 years, it never has received close to this amount of attention, although some Republicans in the legislature say that's not for lack of trying.

Sen. David J. Cappiello, R-Danbury, said Monday that Republicans have raised bills in the previous two legislative sessions that would modify or scrap the current law, but that those bills never made it to the floor for a full vote.

"I thought it was a little bit disingenuous to wait two years before taking this issue up," he said.

Cappiello has requested a special session, but says his requests have not been answered so far.

"I hope this isn't breaking down along party lines, because this isn't a partisan issue," he said. "In my view, this is about the blatant abuse of government power."

House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, introduced both attempts to revise the law and said he thinks Republicans always have considered it a matter of concern.

"Republicans feel it's an urgent matter, but the Democratic leadership feels it's a matter to study for a long time," he said. He added that he believes pressure from Democratic city leaders has led legislative Democrats to move slowly.

While eminent domain may yet break along party lines in the legislature, outside it already has made for some strange political bedfellows.

"I think it's the first time I've found myself on the same side as Clarence Thomas," says Thomas Sevigny, a state Green Party leader who has been active in development controversies since at least the proposal to build an NFL stadium for the New England Patriots in Hartford.

Sevigny, like the Republicans, opposes the law allowing property to be seized for private development, but doesn't find anything odd in the fact that opposition has only now reached critical mass.

"The Supreme Court decision has obviously brought this to light," he said. "Especially when you have people who are saying, "No, we aren't moving.' It provides something for people to rally around."

When two legislative committees do convene their hearings into the question, they will have more than just the Home Rule Act to consider: According to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research, eminent domain is referenced in at least 80 statutes.

Journal Inquirer: www.zwire.com