Debate over eminent domain rages on: Fairfield County (CT) Business Journal, 8/05

By Joan Stableford

While homeowners, outraged by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in late June on eminent domain, are urging legislators to create stricter state laws to prevent cities from seizing private homes for economic development, local business groups stress the process is essential to revitalize blighted inner cities.

On June 23, the court ruled that the city of New London could force seven homeowners to relinquish their property rights to allow redevelopment of a waterfront property into a hotel, office park and urban-style townhomes to expand the city's tax base and create jobs.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the court's decision was the right one," said Paul Timpanelli, president and chief executive officer of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council.

"Eminent domain is essential to centers which are urban in nature and when it is used for economic development, when there is a much greater need to remove blighted real estate and grow the tax base," he said.

He argued the laws governing eminent domain offer enough safeguards for property owners. Projects seizing private property need legislative approval, a process that ensures adequate public input.

"The principle of eminent domain is a very necessary tool for cities to have. I know of few instances where it was used otherwise," he said.

Yet, Connecticut voters reacted strongly to the ruling, according to a Quinnipiac University poll that found eight out of 10 voters want state lawmakers to limit the use of eminent domain. In fact, 61 percent of those polled disagreed "somewhat" or "strongly" with the traditional use of eminent domain to take private property for public uses, such as schools and roads. At least 88 percent disagreed "strongly" or "somewhat" with the newer applications for economic development projects.

Right after the court decision, Gov. Jodi Rell called for a moratorium on eminent domain seizures, labeling it "the 21st century equivalent of the Boston Tea Party."

Connecticut's House Republican Minority Leader Robert M. Ward introduced legislation to ban the seizing of private property for development projects and urged lawmakers to take up the issue in a summer session. However, several Democratic leaders blocked its passage, saying they should wait until the regular session to study the issue.

"It is a popular thing for politicians to do. They are taking the easy way out instead of explaining the real reasons behind eminent domain for the economic development of our cities," Timpanelli said.

Ward proposes to delete six lines from the existing state statutes that allow development agencies to seize private property under eminent domain.

"That is very ludicrous, overkill," said Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy and programs at the Business Council of Fairfield County. "Eminent domain has really helped rebuild cities with blighted buildings and rundown areas. It has been an indispensable tool and very valuable to the economic development of cities throughout the state."

When eminent domain is used successfully in urban areas, it is used to put parcels of abandoned land and rundown buildings together for new economic development. About 30 years ago, he pointed out, Bridgeport used it to redevelop Bridgeport Center by building the new headquarters of People's Bank, where McGee was a vice president. He was involved in that construction, which revitalized downtown Bridgeport.

"The ultimate test is you have to put (eminent domain) to the public test. Will it benefit the greater good — have a greater public purpose and benefit," McGee said.

Yet, McGee said, he understands fully the concern for homeowners-rights issues and that eminent domain must be used cautiously when it involves someone's home. It must be "gut-wrenching to have your property seized," he said.

McGee said the merits and ground rules of the statutes on eminent domain in the state legislature should be revisited. "The legislators should not be hasty, but look again at the whole issue carefully and debate it. If need be, modify it, but with caution," he said.

Ed Musante, president of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has not taken a position on the issue. "The ruling has produced strong reactions in people and has brought up the question ’Äî what is reasonable when using the powers of government to seize private property," he said.

Musante said he knew of several Norwalk businesses concerned about the potential of the city taking over their property for a development project.

"There clearly needs to be more judicious use of the power and it should be looked at carefully," he said.

Fairfield County Business Journal: www.fairfieldcbj.com