Eminent domain issues not always so imminent: The Connecticut Post, 7/29/05

By Charles Walsh

It all comes down to this: How much do Americans trust their government?

Not much, if the results of this week's Quinnipiac Poll on eminent domain are any indication. The poll found that no less than 89 percent of Connecticut's registered voters favor a state law that would restrict government's power to take private property for private development projects.

If we could identify the 11 percent who apparently do not favor greater restrictions, we suspect many would list their occupations as elected officials, urban planners and developers.

As the lopsided poll results reverberated through the halls of government buildings all over the state Thursday, a couple of state legislators were gathering people on both sides of the eminent domain issue for an informal forum to discuss the explosive controversy.

Last month our we-know-which-way-the-wind-blows state lawmakers vowed to put some crimps in the state's easy eminent domain laws.

The purpose of the session, said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, was to find common ground on how to stop government from abusing its power to seize property, without totally destroying what many consider a vital weapon in the fight to restore crumbling northeast cities.

Eminent domain popped way up on the public's radar last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the government can indeed force a person to sell property and, in turn, transfer it to another private owner such as a developer. The only reason the government needs to justify the taking is that the new use for the land will, theoretically at least, yield more tax dollars than what the old owner was paying.

Suddenly people in once-safe suburban enclaves were thinking: "Hey, they could take my house!"

People in long-unsafe urban neighborhoods' reaction was this: "So what else is new?" For decades, maybe centuries, poor city residents have stood by helplessly as politicians and developers conspired to take their homes in the name of community betterment. Much of the time the betterment turned out to be vast stretches of vacant lots.

The Supreme Court case involves a group of homeowners in New London who are trying to stop that city's development authority from taking their properties and giving them to a developer who wants to build a hotel and shopping center.

The homeowners, including Susette Kelo, the courageous woman whose name is on the lawsuit, were schedule to speak at Thursday's Hartford session.

There was no lawsuit a couple of years ago in Bridgeport, when houses in a few square blocks located between Seaview and Central avenues just south of the railroad tracks were being scooped up by Bridgeport Economic Development Corp. (BEDCO).

The agency wanted the land for what its Web site still describes as a "competitively priced business incubator space" called the Bridgeport Innovation Center. Most of the homeowners merely took whatever "fair market value" the agency offered them and moved on.

One exception was Ruth Joel. BEDCO offered her the absurd sum of $69,000 for the 13-room house on Central Avenue, where she and her extended family had lived quite contentedly for decades. Joel dug her heels in. Eventually BEDCO caved and found her a comparable house not far away for considerably more than that first paltry offer.

Today most of the two- and three-family houses — Joel's among them — have been bulldozed away to provide that "incubator space."

As is often the case, very little incubation or innovation has taken place so far on the newly vacant lots.

The Connecticut Post: www.connpost.com