New outcry over eminent domain won't stop roadway: Stamford (CT) Advocate, 7/17/05

By Joy L Woodson

Multimillion-dollar plans for a new city road and housing are moving forward even as the Legislature plans to deliberate on eminent domain and some municipalities scratch rules that allow seizures of residential properties.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote to allow New London to bulldoze private homes for a commercial developer, Massachusetts-based Corcoran Jennison Co. The company also has a major residential and retail development in downtown Stamford.

Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy said the only current development that is using eminent domain to take properties is the Urban Transitway, a $49 million six-lane thoroughfare project in the South End. However, the land is being used directly by the city for public use, not a private developer such as in New London.

"The debate, the judgment and the case have no impact," Malloy said.

The Legislature plans to re-examine the state's 80 eminent domain rules. Some legislators have asked municipalities to hold off on developments. Milford passed an ordinance Monday night that bans the municipality from using eminent domain to take owner-occupied homes for private development.

It is premature to consider the court decision's possible effects on future projects, such as those surrounding the city's Mill River Corridor, Malloy said.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," he said.

Stephen Osman, chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Commission, said the Urban Transitway and Corcoran Jennison's Park Square West near Curley's Diner are moving ahead. However, there could be long-term effects on city development, he said.

"Eminent domain is an important way to rehabilitate a city, but it must be used judicially," he said. "Property rights are sacrosanct, and I don't believe that any one should ride herd over them if it doesn't serve the purpose of the city and the people in the city."

The URC has negotiated with many business and homeowners for their properties, and relocation is ongoing.

"The Urban Transitway is a classic case of eminent domain," said city Rep. Harry Day, R-13. "Nobody likes eminent domain. You prefer not to use it, but it has always been OK for a public use such as a road. . . . I would strongly disagree with holding up the Urban Transitway."

Corcoran Jennison has designed around Curley's Diner, which appealed and won a state Supreme Court case in 2002 that prohibited the URC from declaring the diner blighted for redevelopment. Osman said the commission could have sought a new blight judgment but didn't.

In making its decision, the Supreme Court said states have the power to restrict the authority to seize property. State lawmakers said they will set up public hearings in response to the court's invitation.

Osman said there are no plans to wait on the Legislature's hearings before moving forward on the Park Square West layout. No other projects apparently are affected by the Supreme Court ruling, he said.

Stamford city Rep. John Zelinsky, D-11, suggested the Board of Representatives discuss eminent domain and consider Milford's ordinance. Members of the board's Steering Committee have informally decided to hold off and see what action the state Legislature takes.

Board of Representatives President David Martin, D-19, said there isn't time to get an ordinance passed before the November election, when all 40 seats are up. He said he supports waiting until the new board is sworn in this December.

"It's a complex legal topic and we're probably not going to be able to tackle that successfully in the next couple of months," Martin said. "If you look at the calendar, I think you'd see we'd run of time before we accomplished our objective or we would rush something through we would regret."

"If the state doesn't come up with something constructive, we'll revisit this topic this time next year or maybe sooner," Martin said.

Other land-use officials in Stamford and city representatives disagreed with the court ruling but hoped it would have no adverse impact on Stamford.

City Rep. Patrick White, D-1, called the ruling horrendous. Although he said he has objected to the scope of the transitway, it's not the same as what's happening in New London. He said he hoped the decision wouldn't give developers who are "champing at the bit" the power to squash residents' rights.

"There are some instances historically where it has been necessary to use eminent domain for a road, a school or some other public use," he said. "There are times when it is necessary, but not in New London."

Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com