Legislators tackle eminent domain reform: Stamford CT Advocate, 3/8/07

By Brian Lockhart

[Connecticut] Legislators last night resumed grappling with an issue that consumed much of last year's state General Assembly session - eminent domain reform.

The legislature's joint Planning and Development Committee held its first public hearing last night on two bills aimed at reforming existing state laws. One was generated by the committee, another by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Originally scheduled for 2 p.m., the hearing was delayed until about 6 p.m. because of lengthy House and Senate sessions.

"I think we're expected to get something through," state Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, a committee member, said afterward. "And I believe we will."

Eminent domain reform became a priority in 2005 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New London could take homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make way for a waterfront project slated to include condominiums, a hotel and office space.

But legislators did not reach an agreement in the 2006 session. This year, the eminent domain rhetoric has been replaced by Democrats' and Republicans' calls to reform state energy, health care and education policies.

"This has been too slow a process," Tim Calnen, a lobbyist from the Connecticut Association of Realtors, told the committee last night.

Calnen said association members and the public have become more cynical about whether the state would ever act.

"Is anyone listening?" he said.

The Planning and Development Committee did for three hours last night, receiving testimony from more than a dozen people, including residents from throughout the state whose families had lost property to eminent domain; the Farm Bureau Association; a representative of the state Office of Policy and Management, speaking in support of Rell's bill; and a representative of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

And additional bills are coming. State Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said yesterday that the Judiciary Committee, of which he is co-chairman, will send legislation of its own to a hearing late this month. Fox also is on the Judiciary Committee.

"This must be the year we finally resolve this issue for Connecticut residents," Rell said in a statement yesterday.

The governor has proposed requiring municipalities to integrate private properties into their plans when feasible and making towns and cities prove that the use of eminent domain is "reasonably necessary" to accomplish redevelopment goals.

She also wants property owners compensated 125 percent of fair-market value and seeks a two-thirds or "super-majority" vote of the governing body or town meeting to approve a property seizure by a municipality.

The Planning and Development Committee bill also calls for public hearings on each proposed seizure.

Calnen suggested that the legislature should go a step further and also require a committee of "disinterested citizens" be established in a municipality contemplating eminent domain condemnation to review government actions.

Many members of the public yesterday urged legislators to go as far as possible to ensure their homes cannot be seized for economic development.

"Most of us who have been through it feel you don't take from us to give to someone else to use," said Mike Dudko, who in 2000 lost 40 acres his family had owned for years to Bristol for an industrial park.

But Ron Thomas, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities' manager of state and federal relations, urged caution.

Thomas said it is worth reexamining the definition of "just compensation . . . to recognize the social and sentimental value of the property" beyond market value.

But he said if the state does decide to compensate businesses for "loss of good will" if they relocate, the burden of proof must be on the business, using "independent expert testimony on the effect the dislocation is likely to have."

Thomas said CCM is also concerned with a section of the Planning and Development Committee bill that would prohibit the taking of any properties that have tenants and that comply with local building and zoning requirements.

Thomas said the provision allows one individual to hold up an economic development project.

State Reps. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, and Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, committee members, said the legislature at some point needs to say a resident's home cannot be taken for economic development.

"There should be a floor of property rights we're willing to protect," Candelora said.

Thomas said CCM backs reforms, but the General Assembly also needs to have faith in municipal governments to make the right decisions.

"We know these decisions are extremely difficult," Thomas said. "The prospect of having your home taken away is very disturbing."

Dudko, who attended public hearings on eminent domain reform last session, said he had more faith the Judiciary Committee would take action this year. And he plans to keep testifying.

"It's all over for my family, but I'm still here," he said. "I want to see a change. I want citizens rights protected."

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