The U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 2005 caused a stir nationwide with its decision in a Connecticut case of eminent domain.
The Court ruled 5-4 in Kelo vs. New London, allowing the City of New London, on the east end of this state's shoreline, to use the power of eminent domain to dispossess the residents of Fort Trumbull, a blue-collar neighborhood once a haven for early 20th-century immigrants and cradle of industrial workers, of their homes. What caused such a commotion was that in this case, eminent domain was being used not to make land available for public projects, such as schools, highways or hospitals, but for private development.
Five justices, however, were satisfied that the increased property-tax revenue that could be expected from development was sufficient public good for taking this residential property.
The state Legislature, much to the chagrin of some of its members, including New Canaan's Rep. John Hetherington (R-125), did not pass any bill limiting Connecticut's power of eminent domain. It did, however, establish an Office of Ombudsman for Property Rights, with a budget of $200,000. Connecticut thus becomes one of 18 states concerned enough with possible abuses of eminent domain to establish such an office.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah spoke out in his home state less than one week after the Kelo decision, boasting of the Utah Property Rights Model, which included the establishment of an ombudsman. He claimed great successes in the model for property owners in that state, not in changing the standards government can use to apply eminent domain, but in making sure those standards are in fact followed.
It is only fair to point out that eminent domain attempts thwarted in Utah may have less dire consequences for the intended projects than in Connecticut, a far more densely developed state.
Hatch has introduced legislation that would take the Utah model to the federal level, establishing a national property rights ombudsman.
Until such legislation passes Congress, however, we can only hope that Connecticut's ombudsman will ensure property owners' rights, long held as among the basic rights on which this country was founded. We also should point out that this should be an elected position the legislation passed provides for appointment by the governor. A position designed to protect private citizens from abuses by their government should answer to them, not to the government.
As for the application of eminent domain for private development, it has not proven popular with voters nationwide, and couching it in the promise of increased tax revenue even if that is ultimately for the good of all has not been enough to convince them. A recent example of how little citizens think of increased tax revenue as a public good took place this year in New Canaan, where a vocal opposition stopped at least for the time being the sale of unused, town-owned land to developers as a revenue driver for the town. If the hue and cry against the sale of open land was so high, it only goes to show how distasteful many must find the use of eminent domain for residential property for revenue generation. And blight laws and building codes should suffice in the oft-cited cases of residential property that has been neglected.
We hope the Office of the Ombudsman, which goes into effect July 1, will be successful in ensuring that property rights are not taken away in a manner that falls outside the established eminent domain laws. Perhaps that is a first step toward further legislation that expands the laws in ways that our society democratically decides are appropriate for protecting residential property.
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