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Desperately Seeking Serfs
May 25, 2006 You know New London. The Connecticut town that in the late 90's, decided to revitalize its tax base by bulldozing the neighborhood of Fort Trumbull. Set off from the rest of the city on a peninsula, Fort Trumbull was a small, tight-knit riverfront community of modest homes and multi-family rental properties. A largely blue collar, low and middle income neighborhood where many of the residents were immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, who came to New London during America's industrial heyday.

In its post industrial years, New London almost seemed to forget Fort Trumbull existed. But in the late 90's, when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. expanded onto adjacent land, the picture changed radically. A plan was launched to replace the existent Fort Trumbull community with a glitzy conglom of condos, commercial space and hotel. The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, under former Governor John Rowland (corruption convicted in 2004) threw its weight behind the project. A boat load of federal and state dollars were promised. New London's municipal government said yay. The quasi-public and previously moribund New London Development Corporation (NLDC) was revitalized by the state's attention (and money) and fell to with a vengeance. Their quasi-public clout made more so by the city having ceded much of its power over large scale, taxpayer funded, private development projects.

The Fort Trumbull project, as envisioned by its planners, required the neighborhood to be razed rather than incorporated into the redevelopment. State, city, and NLDC must have suspected some folks wouldn't just doff their caps and depart, because eminent domain was part of the plan from the start. Eminent domain is government's constitutional right to take private property (if fair recompense is made) for "public use". Think hospitals, parks and roads. All AOK. But in this instance, the stated "public use" was the possibility of pumping local property tax revenues.

According to former Connecticut College President Claire Gaudiani,* a former NLDC president and current board member, the NLDC's primary focus, was to "relieve poverty in the city". Since "poor schools" would supposedly benefit from projected tax revenues. That the Fort Trumbull makeover would displace poor families from rental housing, and force property owners, some elderly and/or low income, to surrender their homes and livelihoods mattered little. The dispossessed would receive recompense from state taxpayers, and the pain of relocation would be eased by having served "the greater good of the community" and helping "the real little people."

Though the Pfizer enhancing aspect of bulldozing Fort Trumbull hung in the air like a cloud of Tabu, it was seldom acknowledged officially.

Fear of going up against government power led many in Fort Trumbull to sell. Others sold willingly. Purchased properties were bulldozed. But a small group held on in what was left of the neighborhood. This nucleus, with legal assistance from the non-profit Institute for Justice (IJ) carried the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, 2005, the court decided, in its 5-4 call on Kelo vs. City of New London, to let New London's curious definition of "public use" stand. But those quaffing the victory cup found it bitter. For one thing, the American public, in overwhelming numbers, hated the decision. Second, they saw the Fort Trumbull resistors as heroes, and the state, city and NLDC as Basil Rathbone. The Fort Trumbull land grab had become a public relations nightmare for New London and Connecticut.

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell declared a statewide moratorium on eminent domain, in order to allow the state legislature a period in which to address reforming Connecticut's eminent domain laws. Meanwhile, the NLDC attempted a stealth eviction of Fort Trumbull's homeowners. The move angered Governor Rell; she instructed the NLDC to back off Fort Trumbull while the moratorium was in effect.

In early May of 2006, almost a year after the Supreme Court decision, the Connecticut legislature adjourned. No eminent domain reform legislation had been passed. A consensus as to what such reform might entail had proved impossible. However, both Democrats and Republicans did agree on what they typically agree on: the need for a new government position. In this case, an eminent domain ombudsman (taxpayer price tag $200,000) within the Office of Policy and Management. The ombudsman would mediate eminent domain disputes between property owners and municipalities, and advise each on their rights.

Cynics might point out that public officials aren't always reliably impartial when it comes to development projects in which government has a stake (see numerous recent examples in Connecticut) and that advising people re existing law hardly constitutes reform.

Mediator

Over the years of the Fort Trumbull eminent domain battle, the relationship between the City Council (New London's main governing body) and the NLDC has often been acrimonious. To the point of dysfunction. After the Supreme Court victory soured and the stealth eviction failed, the squabbling turned fierce. Governor Rell, through the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, retained mediator Robert R. Albright of AIM Consulting Associates. Albright is an Associate Professor of Management at the Lally School of Management and Technology at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute in Hartford. Co-author of "A Complete Guide to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace". Albright's mission in New London, as defined by Governor Rell in her 09/28/05 press release, was to bring the city and NLDC to a resolution because "all the parties-- the city, the development corporation, and the state-- have far too much invested in this project to let it fail."

Mediator Robert Albright is no stranger to New London. AIM Consulting has an office in New London, and for a few months in late 2004 and early 2005, was hired by the state to mediate the relationship between the City Council, the NLDC, and developer Corcoran Jennison; the on again/off again preferred developer for the Fort Trumbull project. Apres mediation, Corcoran continued to dither, and the City Council and NLDC kept right on fussing & feuding.

Fort Trumbull property owners who spoke with mediator Albright during his most recent visit, say he laid only one offer on the table and would consider no other. The city of New London would move the homes of those wishing to remain in Fort Trumbull into one corner of the neighborhood. The property titles, which the NLDC took over in 2000, wouldn't be returned. But the former owners would be allowed to become tenants of the city. For their entire lives if they wished. Though this arrangement smacks of serfdom, the Fort's residents weren't offered the right to pasture their sheep on the master's land. They were however, offered the "fair recompense" calculated in 2000 and since held in escrow. The deal would be sweetened with extra cash, culled from $1.2 million of state taxpayer funds freed up just for the purpose. Mediator Bob Albright seemed to place great faith in the sweet buy & buy. Though Fort Trumbull resident Michael Cristofaro told Albright repeatedly his family wasn't interested in selling, Albright kept asking "What's your number?"

The carrot offered by Albright was paired with a stick. If the residents of Fort Trumbull didn't accept the city's terms by May 31st, a move to evict would follow. The sweetened deals would be off the table. As would the city's offer to forgive past due real-estate taxes, and use & occupancy fees owed on the properties taken by the city, but still occupied by the owners. Since those use & occupancy fees date back to 2000, and seem somewhat inflated, the financial hit on Fort Trumbull's last standing families would be crippling.

Despite the threat of eviction and financial ruin, nobody from Fort Trumbull accepted Robert Albright's offer.

On May 22nd, Fort Trumbull's property owners, including Supreme Court plaintiffs Susette Kelo and Michael Cristofaro, plus attorney Scott Bullock, Senior Attorney at the Institute for Justice, and Susan Kniep, president of the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayers, held a press conference on the steps of the state capital in Hartford. Asking Governor Jodi Rell to tell New London and the NLDC to return the property titles of Fort Trumbull's rightful owners.

In response, Governor Rell directed mediator Robert Albright, and the Department of Economic and Community Development, to try harder to hammer out an agreement between the city of New London, the NLDC, and Fort Trumbull's homeowners. But unless Governor Rell delivers an explicit directive that the property titles be returned, more mediation seems likely to produce only a restatement of the same standstill.

Odd how so many officials, both public and quasi-public, can't seem to grasp that the issue in Fort Trumbull isn't the amount of money being offered, but the property rights of "little people". On the bright side, this is an election year. In Connecticut, the governorship is among the offices up for grabs. If the last families in Fort Trumbull don't get the deeds to their property back, and are tossed out on their ear, the publicity will be hellacious. Who knows? Some voters might even remember that the whole bulldoze-Fort-Trumbull-plan originated in the corrupt administration of X Governor John Rowland. Who every candidate in Conn is working hard to seem NOT.

As for reform efforts aimed at eminent domain abuse, in Connecticut and other states, the surest cure is to stop funding it. Even public officials concerned about property rights, or who don't like the ugly social scenarios which characterize development related eminent domain, are loath to refuse the federal and state monies flowing to homefront projects greased by land grabs. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, being able to direct those monies leads local pols to live in the pockets of institutions and entities that want their real estate taxpayer funded and government powered. For every bulldozed neighborhood of small property owners who can't understand why government no longer protects them, there's a mayor, city council, or quasi- public development agency swearing that unless dispossession remains an acceptable redevelopment tool, Main Street will become a wasteland.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Sources include but are not limited to:

"A Vow To Keep The 'Fort'", Lynne Touhy, Hartford Courant, 05/23/06

"Rell Steps Into Eminent Domain Fight," Associated Press, 05/22/06

"New London homeowners call on Rell to protect their homes," Susan Haigh, Associated Press, boston.com 05/22/06

"New London Residents Hold News Conference," Media Advisory, Institute for Justice, 05/22/06

"Council Gives Fort Trumbull Residents May 31 Deadline," Elaine Stoll, The Day, 05/16/06

"Legislature fails to pass eminent domain ban," Tom Giordano, Stratford Star, 05/11/06

A response to "The Battle of Eminent Domain" from Connecticut College's former president, Claire Gaudiani, Connecticut College Magazine, 2006

"Eminent Domain Project at Standstill Despite Ruling," William Yardley, New York Times, 11/30/05

"Governor Rell Directs State Agency to Retain Highly Regarded Mediator...," Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, 09/28/05

"Capitalistic Socialism, Or Kelo v. New London," Sean Sirrine, de novo, 06/24/05

Special thanks to residents of Fort Trumbull who shared their stories and to CT RSVP.

*A response to "The Battle of Eminent Domain" from Connecticut College's former president, Claire Gaudiani, Connecticut College Magazine, 2006

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Copyright (c) 2006 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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