Legislators start review of eminent domain: Greenwich (CT) Time, 7/29/05

By Tobin A. Coleman

The main plaintiff in the landmark New London eminent domain case yesterday told state lawmakers she won't leave her home, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that the city can seize her house for a private developer.

Susette Kelo spoke at a special General Assembly hearing where lawmakers heard testimony on the power of local governments to seize private property and give it to developers in order to increase tax receipts and create jobs.

"That is deeply offensive to the sense of fair play, no matter how much compensation is eventually offered," Kelo said at a joint hearing of the Judiciary, and Planning and Development committees. "While the city has owned my house for years, it is still my home and I am never going to leave it."

The U.S. Supreme Court decision created an outcry across the country from people worried it would open the floodgates for cities and towns to seize their homes.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that New London had the right to take the homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood and allow developers to build a condominium, office and hotel project to achieve the public purpose of increasing taxes and creating jobs.

But the court also invited state legislatures to tighten restrictions as they saw fit and Connecticut lawmakers have taken up the challenge.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represented many of the homeowners in the court case, said there are 26 states, including Connecticut, now considering changes in eminent domain laws as a result of the ruling.

"It is one of the most serious and potentially despotic government powers," Bullock told the committees.

While the Supreme Court ruling dealt only with eminent domain takings for economic development projects, the lawmakers are also looking at tightening a related law that allows properties to be seized in blighted areas. They have raised concerns that the definition of blight is too broad, giving communities too much leeway in taking properties.

Bullock proposed changing the law to end the taking of private homes for private development projects. He also proposed changes to the blight statute that would tighten the definition so that properties now defined as "deteriorating" or that threaten the "public welfare" would be excluded under the definition of blight.

The powers of eminent domain to remove blight were used together with those for economic development in Stamford when parcels for the UBS headquarters on Washington Boulevard were assembled in the mid-1990s. Norwalk is still in a legal battle over one parcel in the Reed-Putnam development along and near the Norwalk River.

Attorneys for New London, a group representing developers and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the legislators should go slowly when considering changes.

"Eminent domain in Connecticut has elaborate checks and balances in an atmosphere of full disclosure," said Phil Michalowski, executive director of the Hamden-based Connecticut Economic Development Association. Michalowski argued that Connecticut cities and towns have little room to grow and that the powers of eminent domain, used correctly, help communities revitalize while easing pressures that create sprawl.

"I have great confidence, as the Judiciary and Planning and Development Committees begin their work today, that this legislature will find common ground and an appropriate response to the eminent domain issues raised in Kelo v. New London," said House Speaker James Amann, in a statement. "The Supreme Court's decision is an express invitation for states to clarify the line between just and unjust uses of eminent domain, particularly in cases of economic development. Following due diligence, I look forward to bringing new legislation to the House floor for a vote."

Also yesterday, a new Quinnipiac poll found 89 percent of Connecticut voters want the legislature to pass laws limiting the use of eminent domain, compared to 8 percent who did not. And 61 percent of voters disagree somewhat or disagree strongly with the tradition of using eminent domain for public uses such as schools and roads. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has come out in favor of changes in the law, siding with homeowners.

"The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Fort Trumbull redevelopment case has rightly created enormous concern among homeowners," Rell said in a recent statement.

Rell supports a moratorium suggested by legislators that would halt all eminent domain proceedings until the legislature acts. Lawmakers gave no timetable for when they might propose a bill or if they would go into special session to deal with the matter. The regular session of the legislature begins Feb. 8.

Greenwich Time: www.greenwichtime.com