Eminent Domain in Connecticut | A House Divided
Susette Kelo sits at a table in front of her famous pink house, arms folded across her chest, lemonade untouched. A white-hot fury narrows her eyes and hardens her mouth. The afternoon is otherwise perfect: a lush summer light, gulls overhead, the Block Island ferry on approach where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound. Around the perimeter of the house perennials are in bloom. Hollyhocks vie with clematis for the showiest display. The flowers’ scent and the ocean air compensate for the whiff of a nearby wastewater treatment plant.
One year ago on this day, in the wake of the June 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sparked a storm of national protest, hundreds of people rallied at New London’s city hall to support Kelo’s refusal to allow her house to be taken by eminent domain for a “public use” she deemed spurious. One month ago, after the failure of last-ditch interventions, the city council authorized its attorney to obtain a court order to demolish her home.
“I wake up angry. I go to bed angry. Every minute of the day I’m angry,” Kelo says. “Bastards.” By this she means the city of New London, the state of Connecticut, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court, and a nonprofit corporation formed to facilitate development in New London.
A car pulls around the corner of Trumbull and onto East Street, slowing as its occupants crane for a view. Gawkers. Kelo ignores them. Her house and 14 others stand like sentinels over 90 acres of empty lots that until recently held neighboring homes and a handful of businesses. The houses that remain are scattered — a few on Goshen and Smith Streets, a cluster on the corner of Walbach, and Kelo’s at the end of East. It is a barren landscape, although not without a certain beauty in the starkness of the land and sea and sky. To the south rises Pfizer’s global research and development headquarters.
Kelo’s 1893 cottage stands out in this setting for its isolation as well as its bearing. The stone-trimmed yard is in order, the flowers free of weeds. A sign posted in front says “Not for Sale.” Inside, the hardwood floors gleam. The chairs around the kitchen table are Hitchcock; Kelo, a bargain hunter, found them used. The beds upstairs are covered with quilts and overstuffed pillows. It’s clearly a place people care about.
The car pulls away. Kelo’s anger is replaced by sorrow. “Why?” Her eyes fill. “Why did they do this to us?” Her tone as she stoops to pet the cat that twines around her legs is one of bewilderment. “I can’t believe it happened.”
Understanding what happened in New London is not a simple matter, occurring as it did over most of a decade, often behind closed doors across private and public sectors. Those involved on both sides seem incredulous that another perspective could exist. Motives of opponents are reduced to a single pejorative: greed, cronyism, power, hubris.
One thing is clear: The city of New London was in trouble long before Susette Kelo and eight other property owners (representing seven families all together) filed suit against it to keep their homes. Once a dynamic whaling port, today New London is the second-poorest city in the state. Daunting cuts in services to its 26,000 residents are routine. Recent setbacks include the 1996 closure of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and layoffs across the river at Electric Boat in Groton, as well as an earlier industrial/residential exodus and the ensuing departure of downtown businesses. Everywhere, buildings are for rent or sale or lease. The Thames River, wide and tidal, is a backdrop to it all. The context of Kelo v. City of New London is one of a small city in which more than half the property is tax-exempt and almost no open space remains for development. New London’s situation is far from unique, and all across America there seems to be no monolithic fix.
In his downtown office tucked behind an art gallery, Michael Joplin is so impassioned that he can’t stay seated. He paces back and forth, talking with an almost messianic zeal about a master plan he says was designed with the city’s interests at heart — a plan that, among other things, calls for most of the neighborhood around Fort Trumbull State Park to be razed to make way for development intended to bring jobs, tax revenue, and other benefits to the city.
“We don’t need another million dollars. We need another $20 million,” Joplin says, referring to the consistent shortfall in the city’s budget. “Where’s it supposed to come from? You need a big chunk of land to generate a big chunk of money. That’s what the plan was about.”
The plan to which he refers originated in 1998, before Joplin became president of the board of directors of the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) four years ago. Back then, the NLDC was led by Connecticut College’s president at that time, Claire Gaudiani, a take-charge woman who quintupled the college’s endowment before turning her sights on the city below. One of her recruits to serve on the board of the newly revived NLDC was George Milne Jr., then president of central research at Pfizer in nearby Groton and a Connecticut College trustee. The immediate question before the group was how to make use of a 24-acre former linoleum mill on the outskirts of town.
In January of that year, the state approved a $5 million request by the NLDC to plan for a waterfront redevelopment that included the vacant naval warfare facility, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, and the site where Pfizer would eventually build a $300 million research headquarters. The state also agreed to spend about $35 million on refurbishment of the 1852 fort, creation of a state park around it, and contamination cleanup. The city and state together pledged $11 million to reduce odor from the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
A month later, when Pfizer announced it would locate its new facility in New London, Gaudiani was thrilled. “We said to ourselves … what if we can create a city where there is no persistent underclass and where the children of the poor [are] achieving at a level that approximates the level of middle-income families? … [T]hat’s the mentality we have here — that we want to say enough is enough,” she told the Hartford Courant in 2001.
Lloyd Beachy, who was then mayor, did not share Gaudiani’s enthusiasm. He remembers being called to her office and shown a balloon chart that laid out the Fort neighborhood with circles to indicate various modifications including a new hotel, conference center, parking, and housing. The diagram, he says, had been drawn up by Pfizer’s design firm without any input whatsoever from the city: “We were told what we were going to do. It was state-run from the start.”