The debate over what some have called a "feel-good" ordinance stirred some feelings that were less than warm Monday night, as the Representative Town Meeting, amid accusations of political gamesmanship, delayed action on legislation intended to prevent the town from seizing residents' homes and giving them to private developers.
In a vote that fell directly along party lines, the Democrat-controlled RTM voted 26-to-23 to form a special committee to work on the legislation, which was proposed by James Millington, R-1, and co-sponsored by six Republicans and four Democrats. It did so after Town Attorney Richard Saxl told members that Robert Morrin, a former state assistant attorney general who specializes in eminent domain proceedings, had reviewed the ordinance at Saxl's request and found its language to be "full of holes."
The vote to have the five-member special committee work on the ordinance came after Democrats called for a private caucus, which under RTM rules allowed them to halt the meeting and retreat to a separate, private room. Republicans followed suit about 10 minutes later with a caucus of their own, and it was another 25 minutes before both parties returned and the meeting was resumed. Julie DeMarco, D-6, one of the ordinance's co-sponsors, then made the motion to send the proposal to the special committee.
Democratic leadership declined to say what specifically was said in their caucus, and why it could not have been discussed in public. Millington said that in the GOP caucus he gave a brief rehashing of the ordinance and answered questions about the proposal.
The special committee will have 60 days to work on the ordinance, which will be back on the RTM's agenda at its January 2007 meeting.
Millington blasted the decision to delay action on the legislation, which was spurred by the controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed the city of New London to seize residents' homes and turn them over to a private developer as part of a plan to revitalize the struggling city. "It's very disheartening," he told the RTM, saying that the proposal has been before the body for months and been through the RTM's subcommittees twice without any of its detractors previously suggesting an amendment to its wording. "How long is this going to go on?" he said. "This has been here for five months."
Others, including some of the proposal's co-sponsors, supported the move to revise the legislation. "This is an important ordinance," said Brian O'Gara, D-5, one of its co-sponsors. "I'd rather get it right and take 60 days to make sure we get it right." He added, however, that he did not want the plan to go to the committee and then "never see the light of day."
The proposed ordinance, which Millington said mirrors legislation adopted in other towns, says that the town cannot seize by eminent domain any owner-occupied homes for economic development purposes, "if the resulting project will be privately owned or controlled."
Under eminent domain statutes, municipalities are allowed to seize private property, provided that they give the landowner fair market value for the property, and provided the property is needed for a "public use," such as schools or roads. But while the New London development would not be publicly owned or operated - or even fully accessible to the public - the U.S. Supreme 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 city.
After Monday's meeting, however, Saxl said that even if approved in its current draft, the eminent domain ordinance would not in fact prevent a situation similar to the one that occurred in New London. He said the proposed ordinance would not prevent the town from forming a redevelopment authority that could take residences on the town's behalf as part of an economic development plan, which is what happened in New London.
Detractors of the proposal have also said that all eminent domain proceedings must come before the RTM anyway, and that a future RTM could simply overturn the ordinance and then approve the seizure of residential homes for private economic development.
Millington said that he has repeatedly asked town attorneys and RTM members who have concerns about the ordinance to provide help in tightening up the legislation, but that no one has responded.
No immediate threat, first selectman says
The decision to delay a vote on the ordinance does not appear to have any major ramifications. Asked Monday if there were any plans for the town to take residential property for economic development purposes in the next 60 days, First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said, "Absolutely not."
Resident Russell Jennings, the lone member of the public to speak on the plan to send the ordinance to the special committee, said that every day of delay is a day that residents lack protection against a New London-type situation, however. "I tell you there is nothing more important than having our property protected that we have worked for and paid for," Jennings said.
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