By Kate Moran
It might be the law, they said, but that doesn't mean it's right.
Scores of protesters packed the sidewalk, the steps and the wide concrete railings leading up to City Hall on Tuesday evening with a message for the city councilors who were gathering upstairs for their biweekly meeting: they can still discard their plans to remove seven homeowners from the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make way for a commercial development.
Dissent, voiced in letters to the editor and phone calls to city leaders, had been building in the two weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court validated the city's plan to use eminent domain to promote economic growth, and it coalesced Tuesday when protesters from around New England gathered to say the decision, whatever its legal justification, simply does not sit right with the average person.
“I came because of the injustice of it all,” said Flo Stahl, a resident of Avon. “It's so clear that it's unfair. If it can happen in New London, it can happen anywhere.”
Opponents of eminent domain found a sympathetic ear in state House Minority Leader Robert Ward, the North Branford Republican who plans to introduce legislation during a special session that would forbid governments from seizing property to foster private development. In a speech during the rally, he said the state should adopt a moratorium on all takings until the state can consider the legislation.
Ward said his efforts to curb the eminent domain power had gathered momentum since the public began agitating against the Supreme Court decision. He had gathered signatures from two-dozen legislators who supported the bill, including those of Democrats, such as Steven Mikutel of Griswold, who also spoke at the rally.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, whose predecessor, John G. Rowland, was instrumental in the Fort Trumbull redevelopment, issued a statement Tuesday in support of a special legislative session in which lawmakers could address public concerns about eminent domain.
“Gov. Rell strongly believes that the rights of homeowners should not be trampled upon in favor of the advancement of economic development interests,” said a spokesman, Adam Liegeot.
Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, the law firm that represented the Fort Trumbull homeowners, hailed state lawmakers for their bipartisan efforts to curb the reach of government power, a response he said was refreshing during this era of political divisiveness.
The “amazing thing” about the Supreme Court decision, said Bullock, is that it has “met with universal condemnation and outrage from across the nation and across the political spectrum.”
Yet at least one Republican group was trying to leverage the eminent domain issue to tarnish the other party. Common Sense CT, a conservative lobbying group, will begin airing a radio spot today portraying Democrats as in favor of “big business and big government” and against the interests of “people like you and me.”
Such partisanship was not on display at the protest, where participants from as far as Kentucky waved posters, sang folk songs and chanted and clapped in support of the property owners. Police, who corralled protesters behind barricades so they would not block street traffic, estimated their numbers to be several hundred.
They wore tricorner hats and invoked the language of the Constitution to portray the rights of individuals as sacred and superior to the rights of government, which some called tyrannical and out of touch with common people. They also appealed to logic and good sense: the government, they said, did not need the 15 houses at Fort Trumbull when they had nearly 90 other empty acres where developers could build.
“Kelo v. New London never argued against development in the Fort Trumbull area. What we found difficult to understand was why we couldn't be a part of it,” said Susette Kelo, the plaintiff who gave her name to the case. “And this has never been about money, as some people would have you believe. There is no amount of money that could replace our homes and our memories. This is where we chose to settle, and this is where we want to stay. This is America, the home of the free, isn't it?”
After the rally, many of the protesters filed into the council chambers, where they continued to plead with city leaders to remove the threat of eminent domain. None of the council members responded to the criticism except for Deputy Mayor Bill Morse, who clarified a minor point made by one of the protesters.
In an e-mail message Tuesday, the chief operating officer of the New London Development Corp. said the city had adhered closely to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights when it invoked eminent domain to promote economic development.
“What has happened in this particular instance is that the highest court in the land has said that the interpretation of these documents that has existed for many, many years is still valid,” David Goebel wrote. “Nothing the city or NLDC did in carrying out their responsibilities deviated from the rights imposed on citizens. We are a land of laws — laws that must be observed.”
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