Eminent domain ruling: Shelton [CT] Weekly, 8/4/05

By Scott Sell

Last week, a group representing state municipalities recognized that lawmakers might have been premature in requesting a moratorium from cities and towns on the use of eminent domain to seize personal property for private development projects.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the June 23rd eminent domain case in New London, many area towns including Milford and Orange, have taken matters to a local level, creating charters with the hopes of halting property seizures occurring within their communities.

Many politicians feel that, despite their personal opinions, they have little control over the decisions that are made on a state level.

"This could be turned over in a matter of days, but there's too much back and forth going on," Senator George "Doc" Gunther (R - 21st District) said. "There shouldn't be. The Constitution provides protection for a person's land and that has to be respected. The question then becomes: are we going to be a state of law or aren't we?"

The Democratic legislative leaders maintain that they need more time to study the issue and organize public hearings, scheduled for later this month. But fierce criticism of the New London ruling from both politicians and citizens is putting pressure on lawmakers to expedite the process.

According to Joel Cogen, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the use of eminent domain is appropriate when proposed projects are for "traditional public use" and "payment of just compensation is provided." Traditional public works projects include the construction of roads, bridges, community centers and schools, as well as any properties that pose health or safety risks."

However, citizens are concerned that public projects does not necessarily mean for the good of the public. One of Shelton's past cases of eminent domain, which involved the Tall Farm property, is a prime example of the complications of this sort of legislation. On Sept. 28, 2004, the Shelton Planning and Zoning Committee unanimously voted in favor of giving the Board of Alderman approval to acquire the 28.6-acre farm on Long Hill Avenue.

"New zoning laws has made these issues very sensitive, particularly when we're dealing with families and their homes" Ralph Matto of Shelton said. "If a city, any city, wants to take land for any reason, they should investigate the cases in full, weigh out the pros and cons. There are often quite a few negative aspects."

Homeowners and small business owners are unflinching in giving up the life they have created for themselves. Instead, some citizens suggest that towns and cities concentrate on current problems, rather than creating new ones.

"It's nice to look to the future, for the sake of economic stability," Matto said. "But we can't forget about the old projects that were started decades ago and are still unfinished."

As of now, many smaller towns feel that legislation to protect private homes and land is unnecessary, that eminent domain cases would be rare for their communities. But others are adapting a "better safe than sorry" attitude, organizing for new legislation as a precaution.

"I believe the state legislature must take action quickly to protect property rights before other municipalities seeking to maximize their tax base authorize the seizure of more people's homes," said State Representative Lawrence G. Miller (R - 122nd District).

"When the court issued its ruling, it also invited Connecticut to change its law. We've talked about this since last year. The time to act is now."

Shelton Weekly: www.zwire.com