Dems Put Eminent Domain Reform On Back Burner: Hartford CT Courant, 1/19/07

By Brian Lockhart

After the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling backing New London's use of eminent domain, [Connecticut] House Speaker James Amann asked cities to delay planned seizures of private property until the General Assembly reformed the state's eminent domain laws.

The 2006 session ended last May without an agreement. Yesterday, when Amann and his caucus unveiled their 2007 legislative priorities at the Capitol, the words "eminent domain reform" appeared nowhere on the poster-boards or in the packets provided for the media.

Instead, House Democrats focused on initiatives regarding health care, energy, smart growth, transportation, property tax relief and public safety.

Amann, D-Milford, later said eminent domain reform has not been forgotten. But he said it was listed among secondary, or so-called "tier two" initiatives, following an internal poll of caucus priorities.

"We have so many challenges," Amann said, adding he no longer expects the moratorium to be followed.

The news came as a disappointment to Nancy Esposito, whose Norwalk business, Casey's Sheet Metal Service, is located within a targeted redevelopment area.

Esposito said when the Norwalk Common Council sought to pass eminent domain reforms, opponents argued they should wait for the state to take action.

Esposito said Amann and other legislators are mistaken if they believe constituents are no longer concerned about losing their homes and businesses.

"I'm in the midst of this whole issue in a big way," Esposito said. "I have a lot of contact with the public and hear from people time and time again (who are) totally outraged."

Despite its low ranking among House Democrats' priorities, House Republicans and Senate Democrats yesterday said the General Assembly should take up the issue of property seizures this session.

"It's unfortunate to hear eminent domain is a 'tier two' problem," said House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk. "The real stick in the eye is a case born here in Connecticut made eminent domain a national issue."

Amann's voluntary moratorium on property seizures, originally requested of cities and towns in July 2005, was a response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding New London's right to take private homes for economic development.

"I don't want to speak for the House because they certainly have their own priorities. But it doesn't mean the issue's dead just because it doesn't make 'the top 10,'" state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said. "My sense is we all want to get something done on it."

During last fall's re-election campaign, Duff and Republican opponent Fred Wilms sparred on how to address concerns about eminent domain. Duff at the time said the legislature has "got to send a signal to homeowners in the state their property is safe and secure" by refining the definition of a blighted property.

State Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said as co-chairman of the joint Judiciary Committee he plans to "take another run" at passing a compromise bill to reform eminent domain. But McDonald said he understood why Amann and House Democrats had not mentioned it among their priorities.

"It's an important issue in the session. But there are other issues that have more immediate impact on the entire population of the state, such as energy, the education-cost-sharing formula and universal health care," McDonald said yesterday. "You've got to remember, (the New London case) gained a lot of notoriety but involved seven or eight plaintiffs."

Land-use attorney Edmund Schmidt, whose clients include property owners within some of Norwalk's redevelopment areas, said yesterday he is confident the General Assembly has not abandoned its efforts to reform eminent domain laws.

Schmidt during the 1990s served as political adviser and senior house counsel to former House Speaker Moira Lyons, D-Stamford. Last year he was hired by Curtis, Brinckerhoff & Barrett, which successfully defended Curley's Diner in Stamford from that city's efforts to seize it through eminent domain.

"There's 151 members of the House and 106 of the Democratic caucus. The only issues that emerge at the top are the ones common to all of them. This is more of an issue for cities," Schmidt said. "But I'm still reasonably encouraged the General Assembly will deal with the issue. . . . The fact it has bipartisan support greatly enhances (any) chance of passage."

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