Legislators dig in on eminent domain bills: Stamford CT Advocate, 5/22/07

By Brian Lockhart

Two weeks before the scheduled end of the legislative session, the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee yesterday passed a pair of bills that members hope will be merged into a comprehensive rewrite of the state's eminent domain laws.

"We're working very hard with the governor's office to come up with a very strong bill designed to make it as difficult as possible for people's homes to be taken," state Rep. Art Feltman, D-Hartford, told his colleagues.

One of the bills, No. 1054, approved yesterday represents the work of the Planning and Development Committee. Feltman is a committee co-chairman.

The second, No. 167, is the work of the Judiciary Committee and its two co-chairmen - state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, and state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven.

Feltman told the Appropriations Committee that both bills need to be kept alive so the governor and the co-chairmen of both committees can continue drafting compromise legislation for the full House and Senate.

"The bottom line is, we are trying to get something done this year . . . without being absolutist about this," Feltman said.

Many states, including Connecticut, began reconsidering their eminent domain laws after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled New London could seize homes to make way for a waterfront redevelopment of condominiums, a hotel and offices.

The case made headlines nationwide. Though other legislatures acted, Connecticut's General Assembly has been unable to reach consensus. It created a property rights ombudsman post last year to help private property owners navigate the eminent domain process.

McDonald last night said he was at the Capitol all day working on the eminent domain bill with Lawlor and Feltman. A similar effort at compromise last year never made it to a vote.

"What we're trying to do is hammer out as many of the details as possible . . . so we don't have two separate bills going in different directions, but hopefully, have one unified proposal for the consideration of our colleagues," McDonald said. "There's an awful lot of substantive issues being discussed."

Both bills would require two-thirds - a super-majority - of a city or town's legislative body to approve proposed seizure of property as part of redevelopment plans.

Feltman yesterday told the Appropriations Committee that some of the biggest differences in the bills are in compensation.

The Planning and Development Committee, along with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, seeks to reimburse private owners 125 percent of the fair market value of owner-occupied residential and commercial properties that meet building and housing codes.

The Planning and Development bill also would compensate active businesses for a loss of "good will."

"If a store is relocated to another block (with) less traffic, is compensation due for that?" Feltman said.

State Rep. Judith Freedman, R-Westport, an Approprations Committee member, voted for the two proposals yesterday, calling eminent domain reform "long overdue. "I'll vote for both, hoping we get a very strong bill out," she said.

State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told his colleagues he believes the state's existing laws work.

"The city of New London have been made the bad guys," said Hewett, a former member of the New London City Council and the city's mayor from 2000 to 2001. "We crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i'. I was there when (the eminent domain case) started and ended. We did it right."

But Hewett acknowledged that requiring greater compensation for seized properties than just fair market value "could have went a long, long way" toward avoiding the controversy.

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