Trashing Eminent Domain — Checker's latest film gets Niantic screening: The (New London CT) Day, 11/11/05

By Stephen Chupaska

Filmmaker Nick Checker is worried about people and homes ending up in the dustbin of New London's history.

“Trashed,' his latest picture is both a documentary and a short film about the intermingling of struggle of the Fort Trumbull residents and the city's homeless.

“I feel we had some important things to say,” Checker said.

The documentary part of the film, shot in color, features interviews with city leaders and is narrated in a chowder-thick accent by Father Russ Carmichael, head of the Grassroots Homeless Coalition in New London.

“Some people are just one paycheck away from the street,” Carmichael repeats several times in the film.

Former homeless woman Jennifer Jarvis said “Trashed” was a good project that let people know what it was like to be homeless.

Scott Sawyer, attorney for the seven property owners fighting against the development of Fort Trumbull, relayed the eminent domain story.

Republican City Councilor Rob Pero, the only member of the city government who agreed to be interviewed for the picture, commented on both the excising of social services and the legal kafuffle surrounding Fort Trumbull.

Pero soberly explained the reasons behind Fort Trumbull's redevelopment, tracing it back to both Pfizer's interest in the peninsula as well as the state's and city's hopes for economic capital.

Pat Serluca, former Social Services director, was impressed with the film.

“It was too good to end,” she said.

Pero, who voted to eliminate the social services department, said in the film that he hoped nonprofits could shoulder the burden.

The documentary includes footage of protests of both eminent domain and the loss of social services this past summer but does not provide the audience with a timeline of events leading up to the Supreme Court decision or information about the city's budget crisis.

The fictive portion of film, shot in black and white, stars Waterford native Kathryn Downie as Autumn, a young woman escaping an abusive relationship and arriving in Harbor City, a stand-in for New London.

Autumn soon finds work at a farm for abused horses, helping to rehabilitate a colt named In The Nick Of Time.

Due to a kindhearted landlord, Autumn finds an apartment in a house, which is soon padlocked by the Harbor City Blight Commission — a thinly-veiled reference to the New London Development Corp.

Checker, in the documentary portion of the movie, does not explain that none of the Fort Trumbull houses were blighted, one of the legal stipulations for the use of eminent domain.

"The neighborhood was never blighted," New London Deputy Mayor Bill Morse, who attended the screening at Niantic Cinemas, said. "There were only a few houses that were labeled that."

Morse added he appreciated the value of the movie's message.

In any case, the main character in the movie, Autumn, dressed in shabby thrift store clothes, is soon homeless, living in a box in the forest and lying about it to her saintly employers.

“I really fell into the character,” Downie said. “I related to her.”

Perhaps the unseen star of the film was editor Erik Hall, who managed to seamlessly marry the black-and-white and color footage.

“There was 12 hours of raw footage,” he said.

The film debuted last week to a packed house at Niantic Cinemas, which donated a screen.

Checker and his crew filmed “Trashed” during the late summer, shooting most of it in New London, even using a vacant house in Fort Trumbull as a location. In fact, Autumn can be seen walking past Susette Kelo's now famous pink cottage.

Hall said he plans to recut the picture to prepare for the national festival circuit.

The Day: www.theday.com

In domain of renewal, a bad law: Philadelphia (PA) Daily News, 11/11/05

By Elmer Smith

West Philadelphia's first full-service shopping center is about to break free of the red tape it has been mired in for years.

That is, it will, assuming that the last 10 vacant and blighted structures left standing in the 31-acre tract can be acquired through eminent domain.

Up to now, acquiring those last parcels wouldn't have even been an afterthought.

The Goldenberg Group, developer of the Park West Town Center project, acquired all of the other properties in the 308,000-square-foot tract by agreements of sale. The 10 it couldn't acquire that way are shells that meet any reasonable definition of blight.

Under eminent domain law in Pennsylvania, the city will acquire the properties at a fair-market value and the project will finally get under way.

But by next year, the city might be prohibited from acquiring the last 10 properties. A proposal in the state Senate, authored by Sen Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, would prohibit taking any property through eminent domain unless at least 51 percent of the surrounding properties are blighted.

Furthermore, if a bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday becomes law, the city would lose all federal economic-development aid for two years if it used eminent domain to take any private property for transfer to another private owner for economic-development purposes.

All of this flurry of legislation comes from a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the right of New London, Conn., to acquire properties in a thriving, blight-free neighborhood and convey them to a private developer.

The resulting howl was understandable, and the quick response of lawmakers in at least 12 states and in Washington sounds like a textbook case of big government rushing to the rescue of little taxpayers.

But the issue is not nearly that simple. Which may explain why all three members of Philadelphia's congressional delegation have opposed HR 4128.

"The bill was hastily crafted," Congressman Chaka Fattah responded in writing yesterday when I asked him to explain his vote.

Fattah says he is sensitive to governmental intrusion against personal-property rights. But he argues that the bill "would impede local municipal efforts in advancing neighborhood revitalization."

Congressman Bob Brady agrees.

"This at first glance seems to make sense," said Stanley White, Brady's chief of staff. But it would have a substantial back-blast. "This law would stop the Redevelopment Authority from doing most of what it is doing under NTI," he said, referring to Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

Seen in its best light, it's bad law for a good purpose. It sounds good, until you examine how eminent domain has been used in Philadelphia.

"We've built more than 7,000 units of affordable housing by acquiring properties to assemble parcels," said Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Herb Wetzel. "We needed eminent domain to do that."

"Under the Piccola bill, you could have a block where every other house is abandoned and we couldn't acquire the properties because the block still wouldn't meet the 51 percent standard.

"In Harrisburg yesterday just about every redevelopment authority in the state opposed the bill."

But it might not matter, if the federal law passes.

This is a city where eminent domain has been used to increase housing options for low-income families and to build projects like the shopping center going up at 52nd and Parkside.

Eliminating eminent domain may do more to hurt than to help the little guys that our lawmakers are rushing to rescue.

Philadelphia Daily News: www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/news


Supervisors agree to clarify policy on eminent domain: San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 11/10/05

By Leslie Wolf Branscomb

Because of the recent nationwide outcry over the prospect of homes being seized by the government, the Board of Supervisors decided it was time to review the county's policy on eminent domain.

The review found San Diego County already gives private property owners strong protection against the abuse of eminent domain.

However, the supervisors agreed that some of the county's policies could be changed to further strengthen them.

The supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to clarify the county's policy to specifically protect nonblighted, owner-occupied residential structures from being taken and given to another private property owner for economic gain.

"Eminent domain has been very much in the news lately," said Supervisor Ron Roberts, referring to a Connecticut case in which homes were condemned to make way for commercial development, and a more recent San Diego case in which houses might have been taken for other housing.

"It's true that unchecked government may abuse its powers," Roberts said, adding that's why he and Supervisor Bill Horn initiated the review of the county's policy in July.

"The county's policy already strongly favors property rights," Roberts said. "Eminent domain is not a power that this board takes lightly, because we place a high value on property rights."

Horn said: "It makes sense to use eminent domain when it comes to roads and public facilities. But it doesn't make sense to use it to take private property and give it to another.

"I would just like the public to know that we're taking a strong stand on protecting private property," Horn added.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June affirmed the powers of the city of New London, Conn., to take property for economic development.

The ruling caused a backlash at the federal and state levels.

Last week, the [US] House of Representatives approved a bill that would withhold federal money from state and local governments that used eminent domain to force businesses and homeowners to give up their property for commercial use.

The state Senate has introduced legislation to impose a two-year moratorium on taking homes for private projects, giving the state time to study whether to impose new limits on eminent domain.

San Diego Union-Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com

Eminent domain changes Westville board: Gloucester County (NJ) Times, 11/8/05

By Anne B. Jolis

Fear and anger over eminent domain remained a driving force in borough politics on Tuesday night as voters [in Westville] demanded new blood, ushering newcomers James Pennington Jr., Susan Rodgers and Woodrow Dooley into council and ousting incumbents Art Kelley and Fritz Sims.

Democrats Pennington and Dooley and Republican Rodgers all ran on the platform of opposing eminent domain abuse. The issue has polarized the borough since January when Council voted unanimously to include the homes and businesses in the Timber Park area in the borough's redevelopment zone.

The borough's developer, Fieldstone Associates, has yet to submit final plans for its projected waterfront shops, condos and townhouses. Council has said in the past that, if the proposal is acceptable, they stand ready to seize by eminent domain the properties of any home or business owners who can't come to an agreement with the developer.

By January, however, half of the six-member council will be made up of council members elected on the promise that they will oppose taking private property for this reason.

"It's a victory, but the people of Westville aren't safe yet," said Dooley, who will finish out the unexpired two-year term left open when former councilman Jay Renshaw moved out of state. "If there's a tie in the council, Mayor Packer acts as tie-breaker. He said he would use his vote to invoke eminent domain if he has to."

The Times was unable to confirm Packer's comments.

"The people don't want eminent domain as it stands today," said Rodgers who will step into a full three-year term. She added that whether she will support Fieldstone's plan at all remains to be seen. "They're against eminent domain abuse, against closed-door meetings, and they want to live in a democracy," said Rodgers of her supporters.

Over the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a sharply divided vote that seizing private property for economic development is constitutional.

"Mayor and the rest of the council could still abuse eminent domain, but we sent out a great message today to local politicians," said Dooley.

"You take our homes, we'll take your jobs."

Dooley explained that he supports the redevelopment plan to save the borough from "financial dire straits," but not the use of eminent domain as a tool.

Pennington, also elected to a full three-year term, was not available for comment.

According to the unofficial election results, Dooley beat incumbent Kelley by 868 to 374, Pennington garnered 577 votes, and Rodgers took 578 against Independent incumbent Sims' 370. Republican challenger Mark Styan took in 465 votes and Democratic challenger Charles Robbins tallied 401.

Neither Kelley nor Sims returned calls for comment after the unofficial results came in.

Kelley stated earlier in the day that Tuesday's election was one of the most important Westville has ever seen.

"It's very possible that if the incumbents don't win, the redevelopment will not go through," said Kelley.

"This election could basically mean the life or death of Westville."

Gloucester County Times: www.nj.com/news/gloucester

Florida voters favor eminent domain restrictions: Jacksonville (FL) Business Journal, 11/8/05

An overwhelming majority of Florida voters favor tighter restrictions on the government's use of eminent domain to acquire private property, according to a poll conducted last month by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.

In a poll of 625 registered voters, 89 percent said they supported having the state legislature adopt "increased protections for property owners," while only 9 percent opposed such a move.

The poll comes after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in a Connecticut case that found governments can use eminent domain to acquire private property and transfer it to a private developer. Eighty-eight percent of those polled disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The opposition to the ruling was nearly uniform across party lines, with 89 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of independent voters disagreeing with the ruling.

Some legislators have suggested an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. Sixty-three percent of those polled favored such an amendment. Sixty-six percent supported federal legislation that would restrict federal funding for projects where eminent domain was used for economic development purposes.

The poll was commissioned by the Coalition for Property Rights. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Jacksonville Business Journal: http://jacksonville.bizjournals.com


Legislators mull eminent domain: (Gallatin TN) News Examiner, 11/7/05

By Katrina Cornwell

State lawmakers will have no less than a dozen pieces of legislation to consider next year to limit the ways eminent domain can be used to take private property.

That news was encouraging to Sumner County property owners who are fighting federal approval of a 30-mile natural gas transmission pipeline.

Linda Roddy said the efforts of Sumner Trousdale Opposing Pipeline (STOP) have shed light on how eminent domain can be used for private gain.

“We’re not just fighting just for us. We’re fighting against eminent domain,” said Roddy, whose family owns land in the path of the proposed Midwestern Gas Transmission Company (MGT) pipeline.

“That’s every property owner’s right to have property. MGT is a big company and they think they’re just going to bully us around and it’s not going to happen. We’re tired of being run over by big companies,” she said.

Two members of the Sumner County delegation have filed pieces of legislation that will be introduced to the Tennessee General Assembly Jan. 10, 2006.

State Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, has filed House Bill 2432 while State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, has filed Senate Bill 2419 and Senate Joint Resolution 501.

McDonald’s bill proposes to narrow the definition of a “public use” for which eminent domain can be used to take private property.

The bill also aims to prevent a governmental or other authorized entity to take property and transfer it to a private developer, corporation or other non-governmental entity.

“I feel strongly about the principal that it should be used only for the public good,” McDonald said. “The only examples I know to give are schools and roads that benefit the public at large.”

McDonald said governments should not be in the business of taking private property and giving it to a private entity.

“I just think that is contrary to what the founding fathers intended in the constitution,” he said. “People work hard to pay for their homes, their property, whatever it may be...We don’t need to let one entity profit by taking private property of another entity.”

Beavers’ bill also attempts to eliminate the power of government bodies to take private property and transfer it to another party for commercial use.

Her resolution specifies that eminent domain should only be used for public roads or streets, public transportation, railways, utilities, government-owned and used buildings and public facilities for the general use of government or its citizens.

State Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, said she supports measures to limit the scope of the eminent domain law.

“There are a great number of bills that were filed because of Sumner County,” Black said. “I will be a big supporter of keeping private business from coming in and taking people’s property for the sake of private development.”

Linda Webster who owns a 249-acre farm in Bethpage, is glad state lawmakers are focusing on eminent domain.

“We’re all for it,” said Webster, who is a member of STOP. “The big bad wolf will just eat you up.”

News Examiner: www.gallatinnewsexaminer.com

Eminent Domain Roll Call: H.R. 4128: New Jersey Eminent Domain Law Blog, 11/4/05

By Bill Ward

Voting 376 for and 38 against, members of the [US] House of Representatives passed the Property Rights Protection Act on November 3, 2005. Under the House bill, federal funds would be denied to the states or political subdivisions to acquire property for economic development.

The bill gives any aggrieved property owner the right to bring an action to enforce the provisions of the Act in the appropriate Federal or State court. The law puts the burden of proof on the defendant to show by clear and convincing evidence that the taking is not for economic development.

The Act further provides that a prevailing plaintiff shall be allowed reasonable attorney’s fees as part of cost of the action including expert fees as part of the attorney’s fee.

Interestingly, the only “no” vote in New Jersey’s delegation was Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D) of Fairlawn, NJ. View the House of Representatives Roll Call here.

The bill now goes to the Senate for approval where Senator John Cornyn has proposed legislation.

It’s show time in New Jersey!
Both gubernatorial candidates Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester have said they will take steps if elected to protect New Jersey’s home owners from eminent domain. The [newark] Star-Ledger gives us the essence of the candidates in its Perspectives section:

Corzine: The state must strengthen its laws to guarantee homeowners are protectors.

Forrester: Would create a task force to study possible remedies to the current system.

Acting Governor Codey, soon to relegate to Senate President Codey, does not have eminent domain reform on his agenda. Codey’s position is of paramount importance if any eminent domain reform legislation is going to be considered by the New Jersey State Senate.

New Jersey Eminent Domain Law Blog: www.njeminentdomain.com


Mayor won't seize restaurant to aid school: Newark (NJ) Star-ledger, 11/5/05

Jersey City withdraws eminent domain for football-field expansion

By Matthew Reilly

Jersey City Mayor Jerremiah Healy pulled the plug yesterday on the city's role in the proposed condemnation of a restaurant and bar to make way for an expanded football field at a Catholic high school.

The city's redevelopment agency was attempting to seize the Golden Cicada and backroom apartment where owner Cheng Tan lives so the city could then turn the property over to St. Peter's Prep, which wants to expand its practice football field. Healy said he was withdrawing the city from the eminent domain action.

"I support eminent domain where it is necessary and benefits the community as a whole," he said last night. "There are instances when the city's taking of private property for public purpose is appropriate, but this is not one of those instances."

Tan said he is happy the city has dropped its effort to condemn his property, but is still worried that changes in the property's zoning will limit what he can do with it.

"It's a good first step, but the issues are not resolved yet," Tan said. "The zoning was changed to prevent me from doing anything. That's the whole problem. My property will never have its highest and best use. I don't know who would benefit from the property other than St. Peter's. It's another thing I have to talk to my attorney about."

The school argued it had spent $4 million and years acquiring property for needed athletic fields and was being unfairly held up by Tan. St. Peter's built a new football field adjacent to the Golden Cicada, but the field is seven yards shy of regulation and must be lengthened for the varsity team to play its home games there.

The president of the school, the Rev. James Keenan, has said he had offered to buy the garages in the rear of the property, which would have given the school the needed room without affecting the restaurant and bar, but Tan refused.

Keenan could not be reached for comment last night.

The school is still free to negotiate with Tan to buy the property and extend its field, but it no longer has the backing of the city redevelopment agency — and the threat of eminent domain — behind it.

The redevelopment agency had offered $550,000 for the property, plus relocation costs. The liquor license could also be sold for about $150,000, city officials said. But Tan believes the 5,000-square-foot property is worth much more, as it is located next to booming real estate.

Tan said he has considered building condominiums there, and thousands of units are under construction or planned in the neighborhood.

Bill Matsikoudis, the Jersey City corporation counsel, said with the school and the redevelopment agency formally declaring they will not proceed with the eminent domain action, the agency can withdraw from the litigation and Tan will have title to the property.

Tan was represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, who argued the city redevelopment agency was violating the constitutional prohibition on favoring a religion.

Ed Barocas, ACLU legal director in New Jersey, said it is inappropriate for the government to take land from one person to give to another, and even more inappropriate to benefit a specific religion.

Healy said he was eager to settle the issue, which he said he inherited from a past city administration.

Newark Star-Ledger: www.nj.com/starledger

State lawmaker wants eminent domain limits: Billings (MT) Gazette, 11/5/05

By Jennifer McKee

A Republican lawmaker wants to change the Montana Constitution to prohibit government from condemning private property for urban renewal or economic development projects. However, his efforts would leave untouched government's ability to seize private property for railroads, mines or smelter dumping grounds.

Rep. Rick Maedje, of Fortine, submitted to legislative lawyers Thursday his proposed change to the Montana Constitution. The move is the first step toward getting a proposed constitutional amendment placed on the ballot for voter approval or disapproval.

"You don't lose private property rights by one cut," Maedje said. "It's by a thousand nicks of the blade."

His proposal prohibits all nonfederal government entities from seizing and buying private property for the following reasons:
  • To increase tax revenues.
  • For economic development.
  • For urban renewal projects.
  • To create or preserve natural areas, recreation areas or facilities.
  • To protect viewsheds.

Maedje said the motivation behind the amendment was a June U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed the town of New London, Conn., to condemn and buy downtown homes to build a private real estate development. The development would generate more tax revenues for the town than the older homes. The nation's top court ruled against the homeowners, creating controversy nationwide.

Montana law allows state and local government to condemn and buy private property for a long list of public and private uses, a power called "eminent domain." Protecting viewsheds, increasing tax revenues and economic development are not listed among allowable eminent domain uses in Montana.

However, the state and local governments can use eminent domain to take private property for roads, sewers and other projects. The law also allows government to take private property for railroads and dumping grounds for mines and smelters or temporary logging roads.

Under eminent domain, the government must pay the original property owners the fair market value of their land, plus legal fees.

Maedje said that because Montana already has a long list of allowable uses of eminent domain, it made more sense to list the five things he thinks should be constitutionally prohibited. If people later decide more things should be prohibited, they can change the constitution then.

He said he picked those five because they have the most potential for abuse.

House Democratic Leader Dave Wanzenried, of Missoula, said he supported Maedje's early efforts because they will prompt a good discussion among lawmakers and Montanans about eminent domain and whether something like the Connecticut situation could ever happen here.

Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said he didn't think Montanans had much to worry about. The Connecticut case stemmed from a Connecticut law that allowed eminent domain seizures for economic development.

That's already prohibited here, he said.

"It doesn't really apply," Hansen said. "Montana is one of a group of states that do not have the power of eminent domain for economic development."

Billings Gazette: www.billingsgazette.com

Eminent Domain May Be Used If Flats Owners Don't Sell: News Channel 5 (Cleveland OH), 11/2/05

Developer Hopes To Begin Demolition By Early 2006

Property owners in the Flats will soon be getting sales offers from developer Scott Wolstein.

If owners reject the deals, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County port authority stands ready to take the land through eminent domain.

The Wolstein group wants to start demolition for the development plan by early next year.

Both sides say they hope negotiations will win out over what could become lengthy court battles over eminent domain.

News Channel 5: www.newsnet5.com

Gingrey Amendment to Protect Houses of Worship from Eminent Domain Abuse: Christian News Today

U.S. Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-GA) today introduced an amendment to H.R. 4128, the Private Property Rights Protection Act, to protect houses of worship and non-profit organizations from eminent domain abuse. Gingrey's amendment would make it illegal for state and local governments to use tax-exempt or non-profit status as a consideration for the taking of property under economic or public use plans.

"In the wake of the Supreme Court's Kelo ruling, religious and non-profit organizations are at particular risk of becoming targets of eminent domain abuse," said Gingrey. "Churches bring guidance to our communities, but they don't bring revenue to the government. Unless we act now, they will become an easy mark for money-hungry developers and governments. I fear for our country if we allow shopping malls and other revenue-raisers to evict our religious organizations simply because God doesn't pay enough in taxes."

The Gingrey Amendment prohibits the consideration of non-profit or tax-exempt status during the economic evaluation of a proposal using eminent domain. The amendment text is attached in PDF format.

The House is expected to consider H.R. 4128 and the Gingrey Amendment on Thursday, November 3.

Christian News Today: www.christiannewstoday.com