RTM may limit town's eminent domain powers: Fairfield CT Minuteman, 11/22/06

By Chris Ciarmiello

Should the town [of Fairfield CT] be able to condemn private citizens' homes and turn the land over to developers if the developers build a private complex that creates jobs, generates tax revenue and, in general, benefits the town? The U.S. Supreme Court has responded with a controversial "yes" to that question, but the Representative Town Meeting could soon say otherwise.

A year and a half after the high court ruled that the city of New London could seize and demolish residential homes as part of a plan to redevelop the struggling area, the RTM is about to vote on legislation that would block such a practice in Fairfield. Under the ordinance, proposed by RTM member James Millington and co-sponsored by six Republicans and four Democrats, the town would be prevented from seizing private, owner-occupied residential property and giving it to developers for economic development projects, if the resulting development would be privately owned or controlled. The proposal was slated to be discussed at RTM subcommittee meetings this week after press time, and then be considered by the full RTM at its Nov. 27 meeting, scheduled for 8 p.m. at Osborn Hill School.

Last month, when presented to the RTM for the first time, the proposal was met with dissent from a few members, and Millington said recently that he was afraid the legislation might get bottled up in a subcommittee. "It is a great concern of mine that people are starting to show opposition to this," he said. While some say they can't imagine a scenario in Fairfield in which the town would take people's homes and turn them over to private developers, Millington said that shouldn't stop legislators from providing residents with protection. "We need to be looking towards the future and ... laying down a blanket of security for future generations," he said, adding that similar eminent domain limitations were approved by voters in eight states on Election Day.

RTM Majority Leader Douglas Jones, D-4, said Monday that, while some members are opposed to the ordinance, he had not heard of any plans to keep it from the RTM floor. Jones said he opposes the ordinance, which he called unnecessary "feel-good" legislation. RTM approval is already required any time the town wants to take land through eminent domain or condemnation proceedings, he said, meaning that the body will have a say should any future land seizure plans arise. "Let's vote on the merits [of individual proposals]," he said.

Landmark case spurs proposal
The motivation for the ordinance was the June 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving New London. The case arose because the city was trying to use its eminent domain powers to seize several privately owned homes and give the land to developers who would create a complex that included a hotel, conference center, new homes, and office and retail space.

Under eminent domain statutes, the government can take private property, provided that it compensates the owner and uses the land for a "public use," such as schools or roads. While the New London development would not be publicly owned or operated, or even fully accessible to the public, the high court ruled that the land seizure fell under the "public use" provision because it was part of a plan to generate jobs and tax revenue for the struggling city. The court's 5-to-4 decision set off a firestorm of controversy, with many saying that it had gone too far in giving the government the right to take people's land.

First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said recently that he supports the local ordinance proposal. "I think it's a reasonable safeguard," he said, though he added that he could not imagine the town ever trying to take people's homes and give them to a private developer. "I do think it is somewhat redundant," he said, but he added that if the legislation makes people feel safer, there is nothing wrong with it.

While there may be no current threat to residential homeowners, Millington said the RTM should still pass the legislation now, rather than wait until it is too late.

Some have discussed having the ordinance apply to the taking of commercial property as well, but Millington said he only wanted the legislation to address the issues raised by the New London decision, which focused on residential property.

The ordinance also applies only to homes whose owners live in them. It also does not apply to properties that contain five or more homes, because such properties are defined as commercial under real estate laws, Millington said. He said the proposed ordinance mirrors legislation approved in Milford and other Connecticut towns.

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