Rell makes pitch for eminent domain reform: Stamford CT Advocate, 2/1/07

By Brian Lockhart

Aiming to reignite efforts to reform eminent domain laws, Gov. M. Jodi Rell yesterday released the outline of a bill requiring that cities and towns take additional precautions before seizing private properties for redevelopment.

The plan also would require authorization from two-thirds of a municipal legislative body, and private owners would receive 125 percent of their property's fair-market value.

"I think both Democrats and Republicans would agree that the issue of property seizures has been put off for far too long and talked to death," Rell said in a statement. "It is time to stop dancing around this issue and get something done for taxpayers and property owners."

But a Rell spokesman said she was not calling on cities and towns to implement voluntary moratoriums on property seizures, as the General Assembly did in 2005.

"We wouldn't go there," spokesman Adam Liegeot said.

Rell will flesh out the proposal in a bill she will submit to the legislature, he said. Although she has expressed concern about eminent domain and called for legislative action, this is the first proposal on the matter submitted by the governor.

The goal is to apply the new legislation to any seizures after July 1, Liegeot said.

Eminent domain reform became a priority after a controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The justices ruled that New London could take homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make way for a riverfront project slated to include condominiums, a hotel and office space.

But the 2006 session ended in May without an agreement, and neither the House Democrats or Republicans listed "eminent domain reform" when listing their priorities in 2007.

"Connecticut residents are just as concerned about losing their homes and businesses as they have always been," Rell wrote yesterday. "Once and for all, we must now focus our efforts on joining with the other 25 states in the nation that have passed eminent domain reform legislation."

The issue still has the attention of individual legislators, including some in lower Fairfield County.

According to the General Assembly's Web site, 19 bills have so far been submitted addressing various aspects of eminent domain. Five have been sponsored or co-sponsored by state Sen. Judith Freedman, R-Westport, and state Reps. Antonietta "Toni" Boucher, R-Wilton; Claudia "Dolly" Powers, R-Greenwich; and James Shapiro, D-Stamford.

State Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, Judiciary Committee co-chairman, said he is working to revive a compromise bill he worked on last session with counterparts on the Planning and Development Committee.

He said he was "dumbfounded" to find that Rell had cribbed liberally from last year's compromise bill in her proposal.

"It's a one-page distillation," McDonald said. "Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and I'm certainly flattered the governor's agreeing with our work product."

He also questioned whether it was too little, too late.

"My fear is she may have squandered her window of opportunity to influence the process, which was in its height last session," McDonald said. "The reality is now we've got energy on the horizon, which clearly will be a massive fight. And health care is going to be a blowout of time and energy."

Rell yesterday said her legislation will ensure public benefits of economic development outweigh private benefits and go beyond increasing the tax base.

She wants municipalities to integrate private properties into their plans when feasible and prove the use of eminent domain is "reasonably necessary" to accomplish redevelopment goals.

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Director Timothy Sheehan said requiring individuals be compensated 125 percent of fair-market value will only encourage property owners who cannot get that price through negotiations to use eminent domain.

"If you're negotiating and getting 110 percent of fair-market value and you know there's a law that says you can get 125 percent, you're going to get in that line," Sheehan said.

In Norwalk and many other municipalities, requiring a two-thirds or "super-majority" vote of the governing body to approve a property seizure would require changes to local charters, he said.

"(That is) no small undertaking," Sheehan said.

Shapiro said Rell's proposal "certainly provides more protection" but that his legislation would go even further, banning eminent domain solely for the purpose of economic development.

"While economic development is a public benefit, it's not the public use envisioned by framers of the Constitution," Shapiro said. "The Founding Fathers were talking about the roads, hospitals and schools necessary to build a nation. They were not talking about waterfront theme parks."

Stamford CT Advocate: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com