Wall Street property owners hire lawyers to fight eminent domain: Stamford (CT) Advocate, 9/26/05

By Brian Lockhart

Wall Street [in Norwalk CT] property owners fearing the city will seize their businesses for economic development have brought in a pair of big guns in eminent domain law.

Scott Sawyer, whose firm represented New London homeowners in the controversial Kelo case, and John Louizos, who successfully thwarted Stamford's attempts to seize Curley's Diner, confirmed last week they have been retained by some Wall Street property owners concerned about plans for revitalization.

The attorneys were in town last week at the invitation of Councilman Michael Coffey, a Democrat whose Ordinance Committee is weighing legislation to ban eminent domain for economic development.

Sawyer told the committee he is familiar with the Wall Street Redevelopment Plan. Passed by the Common Council in July 2004, it proposes building 720 residential units, 1,300 parking places and 45,000 square feet of retail space as well as improving the look of the streetscape.

The plan also calls for the city to work with developers to acquire about 30 properties in the neighborhood.

Sawyer confirmed he represents an unnamed party that owns a building in the neighborhood.

"This particular property owner is more than willing to participate in the plan," he said.

The owner does not want his or her property taken, Sawyer said. Sawyer said his biggest concern is how the city determined Wall Street is a blighted area.

The local, state and national re-examination of eminent domain laws is a result of the Kelo vs. New London case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly supported efforts by the city of New London to give 15 homes to a private developer to build upscale housing, offices and a marina.

Louizos' clients are Themis Hios and George Papadopoulos, who own about a dozen store fronts at Main and Wall streets.

Neither could be reached for comment, but Louizos said his clients have owned the property since 1958 and do not want to sell it.

The building is targeted for acquisition either through negotiation or eminent domain as part of the city's Wall Street plan. The properties cover 4.7 acres north and south of the Wall Street bridge on the east side of the Norwalk River.

Earlier this year, the Common Council tapped Michael DiScala as the preferred developer.

"The plan shows that our client's property is designated to be taken," Louizos said. "(My clients) want to do what they've always been doing — own their property and derive the benefits of leasing it. . . . We want to make sure their property rights are protected."

Although the Legislature asked municipalities to respect a voluntary moratorium on eminent domain while officials consider amending Connecticut property seizure laws, DiScala and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency are moving ahead with obtaining appraisals and formalizing agreements and designs.

"We're about to start a friendly dialogue, without attorneys," with some property owners, he said.

DiScala said he is not concerned about Louizos' involvement.

"I would expect that," he said. "It's fine."

But Michael McGuire, another Wall Street property owner, said news that Louizos and Sawyer are involved does not bode well for the Wall Street project.

McGuire, who purchased and renovated the top three floors at 64 Wall St. in 2001, has been a booster of the city's effort to revitalize the neighborhood.

But he said he has concerns about the reliance on eminent domain, arguing property owners appear to be bracing for "a long-term eminent domain battle that will be costly to taxpayers and drag on the economic revitalization of the Wall Street area. And that's frustrating as a stakeholder and businessowner here."

The Redevelopment Agency last week took the latest step in a two-year court battle with Maritime Motors, arguing before the state Supreme Court that it has the right to seize the West Avenue Chevrolet dealership to build an office complex near Reed Street and Putnam Avenue.

Norwalk Redevelopment Director Timothy Sheehan [says] redevelopment, whether or not it involves property seizure, always has the potential for a legal battle.

"Redevelopment by its very nature is fraught with legal challenges and they should be anticipated going into the implementation stages of the plan," Sheehan said.

Property owners in the Wall Street area have been part of the planning, he said. They are notified about public hearings and contacted as developers such as DiScala are brought on board, he said.

"Agency counsel has contacted property owners from (whom) we want to secure appraisals and environmental reports," Sheehan said. "Those who have been receptive, we're advancing appraisals and environmental consultants."

Sheehan, who was advised by counsel not to appear before Coffey's committee because of the Maritime Motors case, questioned whether it is clear that Sawyer and Louizos have "an interest in how eminent domain would be handled in the city of Norwalk."

"You can't say these folks are speaking objectively relative to eminent domain," Sheehan said.

Coffey said, "It might have come up at some point that they had clients in this area" but it is not an issue as long as there is no active litigation.

"I invited them to speak about their experience in the field of eminent domain because our committee is looking for guidance," Coffey said.

But if Sawyer and Louizos have been retained by Wall Street property owners, it is even more reason for the council to forge ahead with restricting eminent domain, he said.

"The reason people are going to retain lawyers is because they feel unsafe," Coffey said.

Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com