By Peter Urban
Connecticut House Speaker James A. Amann on Monday urged municipalities to freeze land takeover plans until the General Assembly reforms the state's eminent domain laws.
"One thing is certain: Connecticut's eminent domain laws will be changing and our municipalities should put any property takeover plans on hold immediately," said Amann, D-Milford.
Democratic leaders of the General Assembly held a press conference at the state Capitol Monday to announce that they intend to hold hearings on eminent domain — the doctrine allowing towns and cities to seize private land for public benefit.
The issue has drawn a feverish response across the country since the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last month that the city of New London could invoke eminent domain to take property not just for public projects such as roads and schools, but also for private developments that would generate tax revenues.
"We need to let the public know we will address the Supreme Court ruling in a way that will produce legislation that ensures fairness and balance. In the meantime, municipalities should know that this effort is under way so there is no confusion as we go forward," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
The General Assembly will hold an informational forum on eminent domain later this month. Leaders of the Judiciary Committee and Planning and Development Committee will organize it.
Rep. Ernest Hewitt, D-New London, said Monday that he opposes changing the eminent domain law to block cities from using it to boost their economy.
"You would stifle towns like New London that have nowhere to go," he said.
Hewitt, a freshman, was on the New London City Council when it voted to take several homes for redevelopment as offices and a hotel.
The city, which occupies 6.5 square miles, has little open space and is home to the U.S. Coast Guard, Connecticut College and Mitchell College — all of which pay no property taxes.
Faced with the need to raise revenues, the city decided to back an economic development plan that required taking several homes. The city offered the property owners the fair market value for their homes, as the law requires, Hewitt said.
"I didn't want to do it. It was the hardest thing to do in my life," he said.
Since the Supreme Court found in favor of New London, Hewitt said he has received a barrage of e-mails from across the country denouncing the decision. None, however, came from the people of New London.
"It tells me the people in this town are for what we did," he said.
Amann said that the legislature may return in a special session to deal with the issue but that has yet to be determined.
Although he plans to wait to hear from the public and experts, Amann said that the state's eminent domain laws should probably be tightened in favor of property owners.
"We need to make it as narrow as possible so that it is used in very rare circumstances," Amann said.
The General Assembly rejected a Republican proposal to change the state's eminent domain statute during a recent special session. Democrats argued that the proposal did not deal with eminent domain comprehensively.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a press statement Monday supporting the hearing and stating that she believes the rights of property owners should come first.
"When government intrudes on our homes, it must have a defensible reason. In the New London case, the reason was not defensible," she said.
Rell also backed House Minority Leader Robert Ward's call for a special session to make changes to the eminent domain laws.
"We should do this right — but we should not let the matter drag on for months," Rell said.
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