Democratic leaders of the [Connecticut] General Assembly on Monday urged municipal leaders not to use their eminent domain powers until the legislature has time to consider changing the state's laws on seizing property.
The state lawmakers said they want time to thoroughly examine the issue in the wake of last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found New London had the authority to takes homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for a private development project.
In its ruling, the high court pointed out that states could ban that practice.
"Now that the Supreme Court has spoken, it makes sense to take a full comprehensive look of where we want to go as a state on eminent domain," said House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford.
Two legislative committees plan to hold a public hearing as early as this month, inviting national experts and state and local government officials to testify. Lawmakers would then decide whether to hold a special session, or wait to address the issue during next year's General Assembly.
Democratic legislators said they expect to make some changes in Connecticut law. Eminent domain powers are referenced in 80 state statutes, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research.
The Democratic leaders of the General Assembly have sent a letter to mayors and first selectmen across the state urging them wait for legislative guidance before seizing any property.
"It's putting the word out there to the municipalities that we're going to act," said House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden.
House Minority Leader Robert Ward, R-North Branford, is pushing for a special session this summer to consider a one-year moratorium on the use of eminent domain powers. Ward said he has been contacted by property owners from across the nation, concerned about the high court's ruling.
"This is a very simple issue: you're either with the big developer and big government, and against the little guy, or you're for the little guy," Ward said. "I'm for the little guy and that's why we need to change our law now."
Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca, R-Woodbury, called the Democrats' plan to study the issue a "toothless moratorium," and an attempt to save political face.
"It's clear that the Democrats are more interested in authorship than in protecting people from having their homes seized," he said in a written statement.
Bill Von Winkle, one of the New London residents whose home is being seized, said he supports the idea of a one-year moratorium.
"Then, after a year, they'll be the ones deciding whether to put us in street, not the Supreme Court," he said.
Milford officials did not wait for the state to take action. Aldermen voted unanimously Monday night to prohibit the city from using eminent domain to take property for private development.
"We recognize that there are legitimate reasons for eminent domain," Milford Mayor James L. Richetelli Jr. said. "But they have to be very specific, and they have to be for a real municipal purpose. Economic development just goes too far."
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.
"Now every state is left to go back and consider their own laws," said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Lawlor said the General Assembly could pass a law that would prevent the city of New London from taking the homes in Fort Trumbull. But, he said lawmakers still need to study the issue.
Republicans proposed legislation that failed during this year's regular and special sessions that would have limited the reach of eminent domain.
Ward is now collecting co-sponsors for a bill that would ban eminent domain for economic development projects.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, said she supports Ward's call for a special session. But she also backed the Democrats' plans for a public hearing and their request to municipalities that they forestall any eminent domain plans.
"When government intrudes on our homes, it must have a defensible reason. In the New London case, the reason was not defensible," Rell said in a written statement.
The project to redevelop New London's waterfront has received tens of millions of dollars in state funding over the years.