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
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
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
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,
"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
"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
"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
Send comments or confidential tips to: