Eminent domain bill clears hurdle: Stamford CT Advocate, 3/24/07

By Brian Lockhart

Local legislative bodies would be assigned more responsibility in seizing private property and providing additional compensation to owners under a bill passed unanimously yesterday by the [Connecticut] legislature's Planning and Development Committee.

"This bill does include a lot," state Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, a committee member, said afterward.

But the Democrat majority voted down a Republican amendment that would have prohibited the taking of nonblighted owner-occupied homes of four or fewer units for private economic development.

The bill would require municipal redevelopment agencies to prove owner-occupied properties, including businesses, within a redevelopment plan were "deteriorating" and could not be "feasibility integrated" into a project before acquiring them.

"I think the closing of the door 100 percent is something people get concerned about," Fox said.

He added that Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell did not call for restrictions on residential seizures in the eminent domain reforms she proposed earlier this year.

But Fox said a separate bill that establishes further limits on using eminent domain to seize housing could still have some life. The measure was being reviewed yesterday by the Judiciary Committee.

Fox also is a member of the Judiciary Committee. The legislation approved yesterday by the Planning and Development Committee will be forwarded to the Judiciary Committee, then to the full Senate and House.

Despite rejection of their amendment, the planning committee's Republican members embraced the main eminent domain bill.

"It's a vast improvement over what we currently have," said state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers.

State Rep. John Ryan, R-Darien, also voted for the bill.

The proposal would require public benefits of a redevelopment project that do not include increases in local tax revenues and that outweigh private benefits.

The bill specifies that municipalities could not seize property without a two-thirds vote of a municipal legislative body. Residential owners and owner-occupied businesses would be paid 125 percent of fair market value.

Businesses also would have an opportunity to receive additional money for "lost good will," defined as "the benefits that accrue to a business unique to its location."

Any properties seized through eminent domain would have to be acquired within five years of a redevelopment plan's approval. The bill permits the redevelopment agency to approve a single five-year extension.

Eminent domain reform became a priority nationwide after controversial court rulings in 2004 and 2005 by the Connecticut Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court, respectively, supporting New London's right to seize private homes for economic development.

"It's clear the courts were saying to us, 'Legislators, please do something here,' " Ryan told planning committee colleagues yesterday. "I think this is a long step in that direction."

Much of the Planning and Development Committee's bill is based on legislation its co-chairmen worked out in the 2006 session with their counterparts on the Judiciary Committee, including state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford.

The proposal Rell submitted earlier this year also mirrored last year's proposals.

While the Planning Committee was voting yesterday, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a pair of limited eminent domain reforms.

One proposal dealt solely with restricting the use of eminent domain to acquire nonblighted residential properties of four or fewer units for economic development - the same goal of the GOP amendment that failed before the Planning Committee.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, testified that the legislature should specify that homes cannot be taken, even if the planned redevelopment also has public benefits.

"We have to draw the line somewhere," Cafero told the committee. He added the legislation would force cities and developers to work harder in planning redevelopment projects and not count on using eminent domain to get private residences out of the way.

McDonald asked Cafero whether he would include buildings with commercial space on the first floor and apartments on the second in the prohibition.

Cafero said his interest is in protecting "exclusively residential" property.

The second bill reviewed yesterday by the Judiciary Committee would allow property owners or their heirs who lost buildings and land to eminent domain the first option of repurchasing it if the properties had been dormant for 15 years. They would be charged no more than the amount their family was paid when the property was seized.

The bill received bipartisan support from Cafero and state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia. Both legislators have incomplete Department of Transportation projects in their districts that involved property seizures.

For Cafero it is the Super 7 highway to Danbury; and for Prague the abandoned project is a Route 6 expressway.

But Prague said one concern about the legislation is how to choose "should five, six, seven or eight people who say they are heirs come forward."

State Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, testified that 15 years is too long for some property owners to wait to buy back their land.

"Allowing 15 years to elapse is an unreasonable amount of time," he told the Judiciary Committee. "Fifteen years rewards incompetent bureaucrats."

Committee member William Tong, D-Stamford, questioned the fairness of allowing the original property owners to repurchase their land for the original price.

"Over time, property can appreciate in value," Tong said. "Is there a possibility for an unreasonable windfall for a homeowner reclaiming their property?"

But Cafero said that someone whose land was seized several years earlier had been denied the ability to benefit from that appreciation.

He said it is only fair they are not charged more for any appreciation in value.

He said people who lost land to Route 7 "drive by and look at what was and still could have been their house. They've seen the appreciation, especially in the Fairfield County area, that would have been theirs but was not."

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