Fort Trumbull Saga Ends On Costly Note: New London CT Day, 8/23/06

City, state pay more than $4.1 million to settle with area's last six occupants

By Ted Mann

City and state officials have agreed to pay more than $4.1 million to the last six occupants of the Fort Trumbull peninsula and waive almost $1.2 million in fees, as compensation for the seizure of homes and businesses for the city's long-delayed redevelopment effort.

In the settlement agreements, which were reached in May and June but only released Tuesday after a vote of the City Council, negotiators for the state, the city and the New London Development Corp. agreed to pay more than $2.3 million more for the remaining 12 properties than their total appraised value in 2000, when the NLDC, acting as the city's agent, first seized them through eminent domain.

The payments include the original appraised values of the properties along with relocation expenses, and the additional funds offered to entice the plaintiffs to settle. The city is also waiving so-called “use and occupancy” fees, which the city and the NLDC argue are owed them by the occupants, since they have not legally owned the properties since they were condemned.

The $2.3 million infusion of additional funds — like most of the money expended over the course of the eight-year, $73 million project — came from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which has largely underwritten the attempt to transform the peninsula from a neighborhood of modest homes, apartments and businesses into a complex centered on a hotel, office space, luxury housing and a museum for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Caught between that vision and the neighborhood's reality for nearly six years were the six property owners who contested the city's and the agency's right to seize their homes and businesses: Susette Kelo, Pasquale Cristofaro, Charles Dery, William Von Winkle, Thelma Brelesky and Richard Beyer, the owner of a business, Pataya Construction.

The property owners fought the city all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before losing last year, only to be buoyed by a wave of public opposition to the court's defense of eminent domain takings. In the year that elapsed after the June 2005 decision, the victors — the city, the NLDC, and the state — had attempted to negotiate a middle ground between what city officials saw as their legal win and the plaintiffs' public relations victory, trying to reach a deal with each of the holdouts that would persuade them to surrender their former properties on the peninsula without the messy struggle of eviction.

“We wanted to get out,” NLDC President Michael Joplin said Tuesday, describing the negotiators' mindset as they tried to reach the settlements. “We wanted to end this matter right now so we could get on with economic development.”

Ending that matter cost the NLDC, and the state, millions more than had been planned.

The largest settlement payment was to plaintiff William Von Winkle, who owned apartment houses at 27, 31 and 35 Smith St. initially appraised at $638,000. Von Winkle will now be paid $1.5 million for those properties, plus another $300,000 for a building at 216 Howard St., which stood just outside the project boundaries and had never been seized via eminent domain.

Von Winkle's agreement also forgave what the NLDC calculates as roughly $482,000 in occupancy fees, in part because of rental payments Von Winkle has collected since 2000, when he legally ceased to own the properties. Any rent collected between July 15 and Sept. 1, when Von Winkle is required to depart his property, must be paid to the city.

Kelo, the lead plaintiff in the court case, and one who was rendered an icon by national opponents of eminent domain, accepted an offer totaling $442,155 for her little pink house at 8 East St., more than $319,000 above the appraised value in 2000.

Kelo's agreement will permit her to move her house off of its current lot to another location, and gives her until June 15, 2007, to do so, or else vacate the premises. Kelo also was permitted to forgo roughly $85,000 in use and occupancy fees as calculated by the NLDC.

City officials said the amount to be paid for Kelo's house was based on the estimated cost of moving it, though no location has been specified or purchased.

Pasquale Cristofaro and his family — who, with Kelo, were some of the most outspoken opponents of the project and the last to settle — will receive $475,000, including relocation costs, for their house at 53 Goshen St. It was appraised at $150,000 in 2000. The city forgave $105,000 in use and occupancy fees.

The Cristofaros also retain the right to salvage fixtures and property from the house, will have shrubs from the grounds transplanted to their residences at no cost, and will be reimbursed for real estate taxes paid since the date of the taking in 2000. The NLDC also agreed to install a plaque in the finished development in memory of the late matriarch of the family, Margherita Cristofaro, and to issue a statement on behalf of the agency and the city: “We regret any hardship suffered during the course of this case. We understand that the battle was a principled one.”

City and agency officials, the settlements public at last, said they were confident that plaintiffs had been well-served in the negotiations.

“I think everyone is aware,” said Joplin, “that if this was a poker game, they maxed out their hand.”

“Everybody was dealt with in as fair and as equitable a way as possible,” said Ronald Angelo, the deputy commissioner of the DECD, which provided a last-minute infusion of state funds that helped seal final settlements with Von Winkle, Cristofaro and Kelo.

The NLDC had already received word that it could spend an existing pool of state funds — variously estimated at around $1.4 million — as enticements for plaintiffs to settle, but eventually used roughly $900,000 more than that, according to those involved in the negotiations.

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