Knopp — Eminent domain issue was steamrolled: Stamford (CT) Advocate, 10/20/05

By Brian Lockhart

Mayor Alex Knopp believes the [Norwalk CT] Common Council's Ordinance Committee acted too quickly and emotionally in recommending a ban on the use of eminent domain for economic development.

"I don't feel this issue has received the right attention by the Ordinance Committee or council," Knopp said in an interview yesterday. "It has been . . . steamrolled."

Knopp, however, would not say whether he would veto the proposal if it passes the full 15-member Common Council on Tuesday.

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he said.

He was not present Tuesday night when the Ordinance Committee, led by Democrat Michael Coffey, voted in favor of legislation that would limit property seizures.

Knopp's Democrat-majority administration is in various stages planning the revitalization of Wall Street, West Avenue and the Webster Street parking lot.

All three plans call for acquiring some homes and businesses, and all have received backing from some of the same council members who now want to curtail eminent domain.

"There's been a lot of 'Johnny-come-lately' politicization because of the emotional chord (New London) homeowners have legitimately created," Knopp said.

The mayor yesterday echoed complaints voiced by some developers and business officials after September's Ordinance Committee meeting that the group has not sought balanced testimony before making its decision.

At that meeting, Coffey allowed Scott Sawyer, whose firm represented the New London homeowners, and John Louizos, who successfully thwarted Stamford's attempts to seize Curley's Diner, to address the Ordinance Committee as eminent domain experts. Both attorneys have been retained by Wall Street [in Norwalk] property owners and both encouraged the committee to pass an eminent domain ban.

Coffey has said he invited Norwalk Redevelopment Director Timothy Sheehan and Knopp, but both have refused to address the ordinance on the advice of counsel.

City attorneys have said it is inappropriate to discuss Coffey's legislation while Norwalk is fighting to seize Maritime Motors, a South Norwalk car dealership, for a 1 million-square-foot office complex. The project is in the heart of the Reed-Putnam redevelopment area, just south of Interstate 95 off West Avenue.

Both sides are awaiting a decision on the seizure from the state Supreme Court, which heard the case Sept. 20.

Knopp said Coffey could have invited other pro-eminent domain groups, such as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities or the Connecticut Association of Economic Development Directors, to either meeting.

"Why only one side?" Knopp said. "This deserves an inclusive and deliberate process rather than trying to rush through an ordinance just before an election."

Ultimately, Knopp said he believes Norwalk should not act on any local legislation until state officials conclude an ongoing revision of Connecticut's eminent domain laws.

"This is the kind of topic that makes for a single, statewide standard rather than having 169 different municipal laws," Knopp said.

Knopp said he has no reason to question the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but is "against what happened in New London" and distinguished that city's approach to eminent domain from his administration's.

New London wanted to seize 15 houses to increase tax revenue through private development, but there was no finding of blight to further support the takings.

"That's not the principal goal of Wall Street," Knopp said of the massive plan now beginning to redevelop the old city center, destroyed by the 1955 flood. "It's to revitalize an area of the city blighted with empty stores, rundown buildings, where the private market has shunned investment."

To bolster its case for eminent domain, the city's Redevelopment Agency has made a determination of blight on Wall Street and is working on one for West Avenue.

Ordinance Committee members acknowledged they were moved Tuesday by testimony from homeowners and businesses whose property has been seized or is threatened by eminent domain. Many argued blight is in the eyes of the beholder, and that the threat of eminent domain leads owners to stop investing in properties.

For a property owner who does not want to sell a home or relocate a business, Knopp said "there are a lot of ways to work these things out," including trying to incorporate businesses into redevelopment plans.

But if such efforts fail, he indicated that the property must be seized.

"The community has an interest in the revitalization of its downtown areas," Knopp said.

He said there has to be a "balance between property rights and the role of the community, expressed through its representatives, to make decisions about the public good."

"It can't be all on one side or all on the other side," Knopp said.

Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com