EDC Urges Town Constraints On Eminent Domain Power: Newtown (CT) Bee, 8/25/05

By Andrew Gorosko

Economic Development Commission (EDC) members are recommending that the town government observe a self-imposed moratorium on using the power of eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another private owner.

EDC members voted 5-to-1 in favor of such a moratorium, following an August 16 talk on the subject by State Senator John McKinney of Fairfield. The Republican state senator, who is an attorney, outlined his position on the controversial eminent domain topic at an EDC session.

The eminent domain issue drew wide public attention following a controversial US Supreme Court decision in June that upheld Connecticut state law pertaining to the City of New London's seizure of private homes in the waterfront Fort Trumbull section in order to make way for a city-sanctioned private economic development project.

On August 22, the Supreme Court refused to reconsider its June decision that expanded municipalities' rights to seize homes for economic development projects.

Generally, the power of eminent domain has been exercised by governments to create locations for public facilities, such as roads, schools, or parks. Eminent domain involves the right of a government to take, or to authorize the taking, of private property for public use, with just compensation being given to the property's owners.

In June, in a 5-to-4 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that the City of New London has the legal authority to seize 15 homes in the Fort Trumbull section to allow construction of a city-sanctioned private development project, including office space, which is envisioned as a way to improve the financially-strapped city's tax base. The owners of the homes to be seized had opposed New London's efforts to acquire their properties, resulting in legal appeals that led to the US Supreme Court decision.

In making its ruling, the US Supreme Court decided that state governments could enact state legislation that bans property seizures such as those in New London.

EDC Chairman Chet Hopper said August 22 that the EDC would reevaluate its call for a moratorium on the town government's using eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another private owner, after the state legislature acts on the eminent domain issue.

The EDC is an advisory panel that addresses economic development issues as they affect the town.

Following the US Supreme Court decision, Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell suggested that New London officials seek to incorporate the homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood into the private developer's construction plans for the site. The homes would otherwise be demolished for the economic development project.

State Senator Expects Legislation
At the August 16 EDC session, Sen McKinney told EDC members that a large majority of people with whom he has discussed the eminent domain issue believe that allowing private homes to be seized by a government on behalf of a private economic development project is inconsistent with the founding principles of the United States, according to EDC records.

Sen McKinney said he expects there is a good chance that the state legislature will pass a law in its next session that addresses the effects of the US Supreme Court ruling. That session ends in May 2006.

The lawmaker told EDC members that he would support state legislation that would prohibit a government's seizure of homes for the sake of private economic development.

The state Office of Legislative Research estimates that eminent domain is mentioned in 80 Connecticut laws.

Sen McKinney suggested that the town enact a local ordinance on eminent domain, if it chooses to do so, because the state legislature may not necessarily act of the matter in its next session. He suggested that the town enact an ordinance prohibiting the town's seizure of private property for its transfer to a private developer.

In July, the Milford Board of Alderman passed an ordinance limiting that city government's use of eminent domain to acquire certain private properties for private redevelopment. That ordinance would be superceded by any state legislation approved on the subject.

Sen McKinney told EDC members that he considers the US Supreme Court's decision to be a new interpretation of the US Constitution, which expands upon the traditional concept of eminent domain.

Commenting on the EDC vote, which calls for a moratorium, Mr Hopper said, "We do not want to take private property and transfer it to another individual... We don't want to see this happen. We're giving the 'sense' of how we feel about this."

The EDC's recommendation for a moratorium is directed at the Legislative Council and the Board of Selectmen, Mr Hopper said. "We are an advisory body," he noted.

The premise for New London's seizing the Fort Trumbull homes is to create a site for a private economic development project that would ostensibly benefit that municipality through added property tax revenue and new jobs, Mr Hopper said. But such results "not necessarily a foregone conclusion," he added.

Mr Hopper has said he has received many public comments opposed to governmental seizures of private property to benefit economic development projects.

EDC members had discussed the eminent domain issue at a July 19 session, after which they decided to formulate a stance on the topic.

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