Eminent Domain in Connecticut | A House Divided
“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.”
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.