Dueling eminent domain laws: Stratford (CT) Star, 8/4/05

Councilwoman and candidate say voters want an ordinance

By Fred Musante

Competing eminent domain ordinances have come before the [Stratford] Town Council, prompting its chairman to complain that the issue is becoming a "political football."

Republican mayoral candidate Dominic Costello had a press conference Friday to announce his ordinance proposal and was surprised to learn that Councilwoman Jennifer Hillgen-Santa, R-1, had already submitted one at the beginning of the week.

The two ordinances are similar, both based on an ordinance approved last month in Milford.

The chief difference between them is that Hillgen-Santa's proposal applies only to "owner-occupied real property consisting of four or fewer dwelling units," which is identical to the Milford ordinance, while Costello's proposal applies to all real property, making if far more restrictive.

Costello handed his proposal to Councilman Michael Henrick, R-10, a supporter, who promised to sponsor it, but Councilman-at-large Joseph Crudo said it would not appear on the agenda.

Hillgen-Santa's ordinance was submitted first and there is no need to consider two ordinances, Crudo said, explaining why the first one would receive preferential consideration.

Hillgen-Santa is also chairman of the Town Council's Ordinance Committee, and she represents Lordship, the neighborhood where the most passionate opposition to eminent domain has been voiced.

Crudo had received her proposal on Monday, July 25, but waited to put it on the council agenda while he tried to convince Hillgen-Santa to allow it to be co-sponsored by all 11 members.

This week, however, he said he had received a lot of pressure to add it to the agenda and would do so.

He was critical of Costello's and Henrick's move, because he believes political candidates have no business proposing ordinances.

The issue popped up in Stratford politics only hours after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Kelo v. New London decision on June 23.

The decision affirmed a municipality's under Connecticut law to take private property by eminent domain and turn it over to a private developer as part of a municipal economic development project.

During a candidates' forum at St. Joseph National Catholic Church in Lordship that night, someone in the audience asked the nine announced candidates for mayor to pledge never to support taking land by eminent domain for economic development, and they did so.

Hillgen-Santa and Costello said they were responding to voters they had spoken to who passionately opposed the Supreme Court decision.

The hottest opposition was expressed in Lordship, where people said they feared the town might grab land to build high-rise condominiums, although no such project has been proposed.

The state Legislature may change the law to prohibit the kind of eminent domain condemnation of property that occurred in New London, but Democrats who hold the majority in both houses of the General Assembly resisted Republican efforts to do so in a special session this summer. They have said they would rather wait until the next regular session convenes and conduct full public hearings on the issue.

Hillgen-Santa said that in her four years on the Town Council, she had never seen competing ordinances submitted on the same issue, but she felt her proposal should receive preference and questioned why Costello had proposed his or why Henrick would sponsor it.

"It seems odd that a mayoral candidate would draft an ordinance and a sitting councilman would submit it," she said.

Costello seemed genuinely surprised to learn that another ordinance proposal was in the works, but he and Henrick said since they hadn't seen Hillgen-Santa's proposal, they would submit theirs anyway.

Costello said that while he has been knocking on doors to campaign for mayor, "every other resident" has mentioned eminent domain as an important concern. He said the issue seemed of particular interest in Lordship.

Hillgen-Santa said she received many calls from her Lordship constituents about the issue, encouraging her to submit an ordinance. "The people in my district have asked me to do this," she said, adding that she isn't running for mayor, or even for re-election to her seat on the Town Council.

Both she and Henrick said even though no candidate or officeholder supports eminent domain for economic development and no developer or official has proposed it, they think an ordinance is necessary to restrict what town officials might want to do in the future.

"You just don't know what the future holds or who's going to be in office," Hillgen-Santa said. "It's good to have things on the books for perpetuity's sake."

Stratford Star: www.zwire.com