6/25/2006

Media Fed Eminent Domain Uproar: Hartford (CT) Courant, 6/21/06

Op-Ed

By Peter L. Costas

The media have the power to shape public opinion, but do they not also have an obligation to ensure that they present a true picture? Do they not have a responsibility to go beyond partisan press releases, particularly when the issue is of great interest?

The saga of the Fort Trumbull redevelopment in New London is an excellent example of how the media can generate a public outcry which might have been muted if the media had determined and presented the facts.

Having lost the legal battle in three courts which held that New London had properly used the power of eminent domain, the Institute for Justice put its formidable public relations department to work. It issued inflammatory press releases that focused on a statement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her dissenting opinion and staged demonstrations and media events that attacked eminent domain as threatening the homes of citizens throughout the country.

As a result, legislators in Congress and in some states including Connecticut proposed severely restricting use of eminent domain. Fortunately for the nation's older cities that need redevelopment in order to survive, most legislative proposals have been placed on the back burner or dropped.

The result of the failure to inform is that the taxpayers will have to provide the additional funds required to "buy peace" from the plaintiffs. Unfortunately, as newsrooms shrink in size, it is unlikely that the media will recognize their role and change their practice of relying upon press releases without making any real effort to present the underlying fact.

A year later, all but two of the plaintiffs have agreed to accept large amounts of money to vacate the properties that had been taken by eminent domain. As a result, the project is finally beginning to move forward.

If the public had been well informed by the media, it is not likely that there would have been such an outcry and that the plaintiffs would have become folk heroes resisting eviction from their homes in which they had allegedly resided for many years.

The Derys were the only plaintiffs who had resided in their house for many years. Ms. Kelo had bought her property in 1997 after commencement of public discussions on possible redevelopment of the former Navy site and adjacent properties; she has occupied at least one home elsewhere and did not register to vote in New London until after the Supreme Court decision last year.

The remaining plaintiffs did not occupy the properties they owned. Pataya Construction housed equipment there and rented two properties; Mr. Von Winkle rented 12 units; the Derys rented three units; the Cristofaros rented two units and a grandson may occupy a third unit; and the Brelesky property is occupied by her son.

The image of a quaint Victorian neighborhood would not have been projected if the press had reported that the area had been zoned industrial/commercial since 1929, that the major portion of the area was used for industrial and commercial purposes and that most of the structures were blighted. Moreover, the area was bounded by a junkyard and a waste treatment facility that emitted noxious odors.

The Connecticut condemnation statute is thorough and does not permit a "private" taking; three courts determined that the takings were for the public benefit. There is a detailed community development plan that was the subject of hearings and that was approved by the state. The state has provided over $70 million to clear and remediate the property, pave new streets, provide new water and sewer lines, and compensate the owners of the property, most of whom found a generous buyer. New London does not have the funds to build the structures in the plan. As a result, it sought a developer that would use its funds to build on three of the seven parcels in accordance with the plan; however, the takings were not earmarked for this developer.

During the five years for the appeals, the "victims" enjoyed continued occupancy, collected substantial rents, paid no occupancy fees (in lieu of taxes), and basked in the publicity. The city calculated that it was owed nearly $1 million by the plaintiffs who had failed to comply with a court-entered stipulation requiring them to provide copies of leases and report rental income.

At long last, it appears that the project will move forward. The media caused the public outcry, which delayed the project for the past year. This would not have occurred had the media met their obligation to inform the public of the facts.


Hartford Courant: http://www.courant.com

Peter L. Costas is a resident of New London and an attorney in Hartford