6/02/2006

Legislature fails to pass eminent domain ban: Stratford (CT) Star, 5/11/06

By Tony Giordano

Proponents of changes to Connecticut's eminent domain laws who were hoping for a special legislative session to deal with the issue shouldn't hold their breath.

A special session on the restrictions to eminent domain use is not likely, according to state Democratic leaders, including House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford.

The legislature failed to act on the matter before adjourning last week, after Senate Republicans tried to amend proposed legislation with language to limit eminent domain.

The effort failed mostly along party lines, causing Republicans to blame Democrats for the legislature's failure to act. Democratic leaders said there were too many unresolved issues to reconcile in the House and Senate versions of the proposed eminent domain reform bills.

Amann said those differences would have taken too long to iron out and the debate would have lasted up to last Wednesday's adjournment deadline without a resolution. "I'm not going to waste the General Assembly's time if we're not going to accomplish anything," he said. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that one bill was going to die in one chamber, and another was going to die in the other. We couldn't get a consensus."

While Amann has stated publicly that he's pleased with the legislature's accomplishment in the recent session, State Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield said the legislature's biggest failure by far "is our inability to deal with eminent domain."

Initiatives in Connecticut and other states across the nation to limit eminent domain powers came as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a year ago involving a New London case.

The court ruled 5-4 that New London's development agency could use eminent domain to take homes in the Fort Trumbull area for an economic development project. But the court also said in its ruling that states could pass laws to restrict the taking of property through eminent domain.

Some progress made
Some Connecticut legislators said while the issue died this session, some progress was made before they adjourned. Some $200,000 was allocated for a new state property rights ombudsman who will mediate disputes and inform homeowners and municipalities of their rights and duties during eminent domain processes.

The post was created under a spending bill of the Office of Policy and Management and also was proposed in one of the eminent domain reform bills that died.

Paul S. Timpanelli, head of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council (BRBC), doesn't see a need for a special legislative session, nor does he think the state's present eminent domain laws have to be changed.

Timpanelli said, "Current laws on the books can handle any problems with eminent domain."

Connecticut property owners "are well-protected by current laws and the judicial appeal processs," he said.

The BRBC president said municipalities need access to the eminent domain process, especially to rid cities of blighted areas. He noted that Bridgeport was successful in eliminating a blighted area and replacing it with 60 units of artists' housing using the eminent domain process. "The area was run down and the building was boarded up and hadn't been used for 15 years, creating quite an eyesore," he said.

House Speaker Amann, however, is skeptical about the protections Timpanelli cited. "In my own hometown of Milford in the late 1950s, waterfront properties were taken by eminent domain with promises of a new public beach," he said. "What we ended up with was a 20-year landfill. Over the past two decades we worked hard to get past local in-fighting and earn funding support from the state to finally create what is now known as Silver Sands Beach. A great ending to be sure, but another example of questionable use of eminent domain."

Amann's position when the issue first surfaced last year was that the legislature should not blame New London for the controversy over eminent domain. "The city played by the rules and prevailed in our nation's highest court," he said at the time. "And while tempting, a blanket ban on eminent domain is unwise...It would be irresponsible to simply tie the hands of local government in a hasty reaction to an unpopular court decision."

He said Connecticut should adopt legislation that "raises the eminent domain standard to a level that exceeds what was used in the New London case.

"Several other states - with more certainly to follow - allow such taking only on blighted property," Amann noted. "This would be a good start, but we need to examine the other 80-plus references to eminent domain in state law to better protect property owners and avoid more unintended consequences."

There are "perils and consequences when eminent domain becomes part of the plan," he continued. "The door is open for Connecticut to act. Property owners can be assured that this legislature will."

A developer's viewpoint
Though people may think the Supreme Court's ruling would brighten the hearts of developers, at least one major developer in this region thinks the current eminent domain law that allows the taking of private property for economic development in Connecticut is "un-American."

Robert D. Scinto, a prominent developer who resides in Fairfield, is chairman of Robert D. Scinto Inc. of Shelton. He said Connecticut's eminent domain law "is probably the worst law anyone could put on the books.

"Anyone can make a case on any development, claiming it will benefit the community," Scinto said. "But who can say if the project they want to put up, like a hotel, will be successful?

"Yet, you took someone's private property to do it. It's so un-American that one man can take another man's property on the pretense it's going to benefit the community.

"The courts have said a state can make its own rules, and we should pass a law that says you can't use eminent domain for economic development," He said

Scinto cautioned that such municipal powers often open the doors for chicanery between public officials and unscrupulous entrepreneurs at the local level "which is worse than the California gold rush."


Stratford Star: http://www.zwire.com