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Eminent Domain in Connecticut | A House Divided

In March 2002, the court ruled that four plaintiffs had the right to remain where they were but that the city could take four properties near the waterfront for redevelopment. Neither the city nor the property owners were happy and sought to have the decision overturned.

One night in late 2002, Susette Kelo was working in a hospital emergency room when a man critically hurt in a car accident was rushed in by ambulance. It was only after working alongside the rest of the medical staff for some time that Kelo realized the man was Tim LeBlanc. For two weeks he remained in a coma, and he was hospitalized for two months.

Kelo came to love her neighborhood even more while her husband was at home recovering from his disabling brain injury. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” she says of her neighbors. “They took care of Timmy while I was at work. He’d go up the street to make Italian sausage and meatballs with the Derys, or Billy Von Winkle would come take him to a flea market and out to eat. I’ll never find people with that kind of character anywhere else.”

While LeBlanc was still hospitalized, the Connecticut Supreme Court began hearing the appeal. Fifteen months later, in March 2004, it affirmed the NLDC’s use of eminent domain. The Institute for Justice then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the Fort Trumbull plaintiffs to keep their properties. Oral arguments were presented in February 2005; Kelo and LeBlanc were there, as were many of the other neighbors. In June, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of New London. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that “public purpose” could include creating jobs in a depressed city. The court should not second-guess local governments, he said: “[P]romoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government.”

The ruling sent shock waves across the nation. A Christian Science Monitor poll found that 98.5 percent of respondents disagreed with the court’s decision. Seemingly odd bedfellows such as Rush Limbaugh, the AARP, Ralph Nader, the NAACP, and the Libertarian Party warned of eminent domain abuse to come. In the ensuing months, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to deny federal funds to cities or states that use eminent domain for economic development. Many state legislatures have begun to consider similar laws, and at least 28 states made changes in the past year. On the first anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, President Bush ordered that federal agencies could not take private property except for public works projects.

Despite the outpouring of support, prospects in the Fort remained essentially unchanged. Gradually, one petitioner after another settled with the city — Guretsky, Dery, Brelesky, Beyer, Von Winkle — until all that remained were the Cristofaro family and Kelo. On June 30, 2006, they signed agreements. The city agreed that Kelo’s house would not be demolished; instead, it would be moved from 8 East Street to another New London neighborhood. It was later disclosed that Susette Kelo received $442,000 to end her fight.

On the deck of a downtown restaurant, Kelo and LeBlanc sit gazing out at the harbor. Even at dusk, the water is alive with boats. To the west, workers are setting up concessions and amusement rides for the coming weekend’s Sailfest. “This will be our last year watching the fireworks,” Kelo says.

“We’ll watch them someplace else, Susy,” says LeBlanc.

“Things will change. Not necessarily for the better,” Kelo tells him. She relents a little. “I hope all of us, wherever we wind up, will find a place to call home again.”

When they do move, Kelo and LeBlanc will uproot their perennials and take them. LeBlanc is already collecting containers. That comforts him, but Kelo says, “They could have had their hotel and their condos and just left us here. We were never against the development. We were simply against leaving. But I’m not good enough. None of us was good enough.”

On both sides, feelings still run high. “This high-pitched rhetoric owes its intensity to a long and effective public relations campaign by the Institute for Justice,” wrote Gregory Stone, deputy editor of The Day’s editorial page. “The Institute planted the story in the nation’s leading newspapers, employing as its poster person for this national campaign Susette Kelo … [The] controversy has gone over the top, from a civic controversy to a libertarian morality play.”

Not that the Institute for Justice is budging. “The [Supreme Court] decision was despised across all political persuasions, and for good reason,” says petitioners’ attorney Bullock. “What happened in Fort Trumbull was wrong. It was about ego and arrogance as opposed to common sense. [The NLDC] could easily have built around what was there.”

Londregan, the city attorney, dismisses that option: “What developer would be interested in building a brand-new building under those conditions?” What’s more, he says, the Fort had been zoned industrial/commercial since 1929 and many buildings were vacant. It never was, he says, the cozy neighborhood depicted in the media.

In the end, it’s hard to locate a true villain, despite probable missteps both in terms of how the MDP evolved and how the property owners were treated. It seems likely, too, that part of the neighborhood could have been preserved. Yet, as Londregan points out, “How often does a state government offer $70 million? How often does a major pharmaceutical company of international renown decide to build a $350 million complex in your city?” At least some of the perceived haste and heedlessness may have resulted from that.

In any case, there are two things on which almost everyone agrees: The first is that they’re tired. Kelo, the Cristofaros, Joplin, Londregan — everyone mentions being tired. And rightly so. As Von Winkle says, “We’ve been fighting for years and years.” The second point of agreement is that New London has sustained a blow to its image, both in terms of how others see it and how it sees itself. Across the United States, the city has become known as the place that trampled a woman’s right to her own home. And yet Kelo herself says, “I love this city. I hate what’s happened to it.”

Updated Wednesday, November 30th, -0001

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