Legislative panel to hear eminent domain testimony: The Stamford (CT) Advocate, 10/6/05

By Tobin A Coleman

The national political storm created by the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the condemnation of private homes for commercial development will move into the [Connecticut] state Capitol today as legislators consider laws to limit the power of eminent domain.

Today's public hearing is the second before the Judiciary Committee, which is considering five bills that would curtail the powers of state and local government to take private property.

Some of the bills aim to prohibit the takings in all cases where the goal is only economic development, as in the Kelo v. New London Development Corp. case decided by the Supreme Court in June.

One bill, proposed by the Institute for Justice, the nonprofit legal entity that represented the homeowners in Kelo, would end the use of eminent domain simply to raise more tax revenues.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based institute, who represented the homeowners in the Kelo case, said the other four bills would not limit enough government's power to take private land under that scenario.

"That practice will not stop under most of the proposals that are being floated before the committee," Bullock said in a telephone interview.

The Institute for Justice bill would still allow the taking of property in situations where a city or town is trying to clean up a slum or blighted area. But the proposal would also tighten the definition of blight, exorcising current language that allows property to be taken that is "deteriorating" or that impairs the "welfare" or "morals" of a community.

Bullock said such terms are antiquated and can be construed much too broadly.

"Redevelopment laws now allow government to take ordinary neighborhoods to turn them over to businesses to develop more tax revenue," he said. "Our proposal would stop that."

Judiciary Committee Co-chairmen state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, authored a bill that would set strict conditions on all of the state's eminent domain laws, restricting its use to certain provable public purposes.

Lawlor said their bill would outlaw in Connecticut a situation outlined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her dissenting opinion in Kelo. O'Connor warned that the decision would allow government to take a small hotel and replace it with a larger hotel simply to increase property tax revenues.

"The court today significantly expands the meaning of public use," O'Connor wrote. "It holds that the sovereign may take private property currently put to ordinary private use, and give it over for new, ordinary private use."

Lawlor and McDonald's proposal would outlaw such a practice in Connecticut, Lawlor said.

Stamford and Norwalk redevelopment officials are expected to testify today.

Timothy Sheehan, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, said he will testify that cities such as Stamford and Norwalk, that are highly developed with few vacant parcels left, need eminent domain to remain viable.

"The tools should remain," Sheehan said. "If there are ways in which they want to see or guide the employment of the tool that's fine. But to take the tool away from cities, it's going to be difficult to employ a host of economic development projects in Norwalk, and going into the future, how are you going to implement smart growth alternatives?

The Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com