Norwalk council to debate eminent domain: Stamford (CT) Advocate, 10/24/05

By Brian Lockhart

Members of the [Norwalk] Common Council are weighing a compromise over a controversial eminent domain ordinance to allow developers engaged in revitalization projects to move ahead with seizures of private homes and businesses.

"My preference would be to have a total ban," said Democrat Michael Coffey, whose ordinance strictly limiting the city's powers of eminent domain to noneconomic development purposes is up for vote tomorrow.

But with opposition from some peers, Coffey said he is willing to change language so "it would not retroactively apply to projects already in place" along Wall Street and West Avenue.

"It would allow them to go forward," he said.

That was a major sticking point for Council President Fred Bondi, also a Democrat. He asked the legal department to review Coffey's proposal to determine how it could affect existing agreements between the city and developers.

Some of the agreements had been approved by council members who now oppose the use of eminent domain.

For several years the city has been working with Stanley Seligson to plan a revitalization of West Avenue. This year, the city tapped M.F. DiScala & Co. and POKO Partners to revitalize two sections of historic Wall Street.

"We've already committed to them, and we should honor our commitment," Bondi said. "How do you go back now?"

The city is in a legal battle to seize Maritime Motors, a West Avenue car dealership, for a 1-million-square-foot office complex in the Reed-Putnam urban renewal area to be built by 95/7 Ventures. Both sides are awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court, which heard the case Sept. 20.

Coffey said his revised eminent domain ordinance may change what the city should consider fair compensation for all property owners whose homes or businesses are seized.

His initiative comes amidst a national re-examination of property seizure prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision backing efforts by New London to give 15 homes to a private developer for upscale housing, offices and a marina.

The legislation passed last week by the council's Ordinance Committee, which Coffey heads, would limit Norwalk's use of eminent domain to construct public facilities, such as schools or roads; preserve open space; and address health or safety hazards.

In a poll of all 15 council members last week by The Advocate, it appeared there were enough votes to pass at least some form of the ordinance, although perhaps not enough to back a full ban on seizing property for redevelopment.

Coffey said that, from his discussions with other council members, "it would appear a clear majority would agree with the compromise."

Opponents of Coffey's efforts, such as Democratic Mayor Alex Knopp, say the council should await action by the state Legislature, which is reviewing Connecticut's eminent domain laws.

Attorney Louis Ciccarello, who runs Norwalk's legal department, said he is reviewing whether it is legal for the council to pass its own eminent domain legislation.

Bondi said the council already has the responsibility to approve individual property seizures.

"We do have checks and balances," he said.

According to an analysis by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, since the late 1970s Norwalk has acquired about 50 private properties through eminent domain for the historic Washington Street improvement effort; for revitalization of Water Street, including construction of the Maritime Aquarium; for the ongoing Reed-Putnam project off West Avenue; and for construction of the newly opened police headquarters at South Main and Monroe streets.

The planned revitalization of Wall Street and West Avenue depends on acquiring at least 40 more private properties through negotiation or eminent domain.

Common Council Majority Leader William Krummel, a Democrat, said he is looking forward to tomorrow's discussion of Coffey's proposal and supports some form of local eminent domain legislation.

"Everybody I talk to is very much against the idea of eminent domain," Krummel said. "It's become a hot-button topic overnight and I think we should certainly do something about it."

The Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com