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Eminent Domain in Connecticut | A House Divided

The city’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP), as it progressed, came to include the hotel and conference center, an apartment and condominium complex, a biotech incubator, a museum, and a walkway along the river. The state agreed to contribute $73 million primarily to help buy the buildings that would be demolished, to equip the area with updated roads and utilities, and to ameliorate more contamination. The city council gave the NLDC power of eminent domain, and the agency voted to begin taking any remaining properties in 2000. In June 2001, Pfizer opened its doors within easy sight of Fort Trumbull.

Many people, including Joplin, credit Claire Gaudiani with having the vision that could save a city. That vision notwithstanding, she did not endear herself to residents by telling reporters she wanted to turn New London into a “hip little town.” Aerial photographs pinned to the walls in the NLDC offices impart a surely unintended coldness in conveying MDP “progress.” The first photo depicts the Fort neighborhood largely as it was, with blocks of homes and buildings. Pfizer appears in the second shot, which also shows empty lots where buildings have been razed. The third photo is closest to the way the area looks now: a desolate place dotted here and there with structures.

Even so, Joplin — who spent his high school years in New London as the son of a retired career Navy man who was working as a security officer at the nearby submarine base — remains ardently defensive of the city’s mission. In a letter to The Day, New London’s daily paper, he wrote that “the rationale for our plans and work can never be reduced to a simple, or fearful, sound bite.” Now, still pacing, he says, “It’s about the kids in the projects who need a decent education.”

City Attorney Thomas Londregan, who has lived in New London all his life, furthers that sentiment. “I believe I was fighting for the underdog,” he says. “You don’t find Section 8 housing in the lily-white suburbs or programs for the poor and the disadvantaged. I’d like them to come and try to take over the social responsibility we have here.”

For Susette Kelo and other residents of the Fort, the first sign of trouble came in January 1998, when real estate agents began showing up at their doors. Kelo remembers a woman making an offer on behalf of “an unnamed buyer.” Kelo said she wasn’t interested in selling. She remembers being told that if she refused, her home would be taken by the city. “[The agent] told me stories of her relatives who had lost their homes to eminent domain.” Her advice was to give up. “‘The government always wins,'” Kelo remembers her saying.

Kelo was not one to easily surrender. Much of her life, it seems, has been characterized by resilience in the face of hardship. She moved to New London from northern Maine when she was 7. Her mother took a job as a waitress and sent Kelo and her siblings to local Catholic schools. The family eventually moved; Kelo did not return to New London until 1997, after a divorce. By then her five sons, now ages 24 to 33, were nearly grown. Kelo had waited until the youngest left high school to pursue her degree in nursing and was working as a paramedic.

One day, she was called to Fort Trumbull to meet the Sea Stretcher from Fishers Island. The patient, as it turned out, did not have to be transported. On her way back from the water, Kelo came across a ramshackle cottage for sale on East Street. It needed extensive work, but she was taken by the location — “a nice, warm, working-class neighborhood” — and by the view. Later, she went with a real estate agent to look at the property. “When I walked in, it was like I’d been there all my life,” she says, her face softening at the memory. “I turned to the Realtor and said, ‘I want it.’ He thought I was out of my mind.”

Kelo began to renovate her house “pretty much from top to bottom,” starting by cutting brush so she could get to the front door. She poured concrete for the basement, shingled the roof, and improved the interior. She painted the house salmon pink, her favorite color. During this time she met Tim LeBlanc, who has since become her husband. A stonemason, LeBlanc did much of the exterior work on the house, and together they settled in, getting up early for sunrises over the harbor and watching sunsets from the patio in back.

Still flush with the new turns in her life, Kelo brought a sense of optimism to the Tuesday-morning meetings she and her neighbors held in their kitchens in response to pressure from the city to sell their homes. Once assembled, they’d parcel out tasks — fliers, posters, letters to the editor — and strategize over mugs of coffee.

“I thought things were going to work out,” says Kelo. “I really did.”

In January 2000, after the city delegated its power of eminent domain to the NLDC, the pace of the turnover picked up. Two appraisers assessed properties and offered owners the higher of the two amounts. One by one, Fort residents gave in. Bulldozers began knocking down buildings that spring. Those who remained recall the dust and noise as houses crumbled and their neighbors moved away.

On the day before Thanksgiving of that year, a sheriff affixed a letter to Kelo’s door: Her home had been condemned by the city of New London and the NLDC. She would be given $128,000 in compensation (a little more than twice what she had paid), and she had to be out by March. A few blocks away, on Goshen Street, the same thing was happening at the Cristofaro residence, only in this case both of the elderly Cristofaros happened to be home when the sheriff arrived. According to their son Michael, the news was so upsetting that his mother began having chest pain and had to be taken to the hospital.

Bill Von Winkle, who was living in the Fort and was also a landlord there, recalls another unpleasant moment: “They kicked in the doors and woke people up,” he says of the effort to empty his buildings of tenants after he refused to evict them. “Afterwards, they nailed the doors shut and put padlocks on the front. The police had to come and let everyone back in.”

In mid-December, the Institute for Justice — a libertarian law firm based in Arlington, Virginia — agreed to represent seven families, including Kelo and the Cristofaros, in a suit against the city. Together, the plaintiffs owned 15 houses and businesses. “We got involved because what was going on was an outrageous abuse of power,” says Scott Bullock, who argued the case. “There was so little respect shown for these people. The city wanted to take an entire neighborhood and make it anew. They were not willing to compromise.”

By 2001, the NLDC had acquired about 80 buildings and demolished most of them. The trial began in July of that year in New London Superior Court. Bullock argued that the city had violated the law by subverting the process of eminent domain from providing for the public good (with entities such as schools, roads, and bridges) to creating profits for private developers. Bullock maintained that economic development, implicit in the MDP, did not qualify as public use.

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