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Land Grabbers Stew
September 21, 2005: First, take a nice plump local development corporation. An unelected quasi-public agency. The kind now found roosting in many cities, counties and states. Enhance with the power of eminent domain. Aka the right of elected governments to take private property for public use. Kick it up a notch by expanding the understanding of public use to include private development projects that promise to deliver more revenue than existing homes and businesses. Roll the private development project in public money, gathered from taxpayers. Have politicians, planners, developers, corporations, non-profits and possibly a university president or two intone "revitalization" while stirring the pot. Serve on a bed of cooked public input and crispy misreps of true intentions. Voila-- comfort food for the kind of folks who were made king by somebody or other who died. Only one drawback. Land grabbers stew can cause serious innnnnndigestion.

In the late 90's the city of New London, Connecticut became involved in a massive redevelopment project linked to the Pfizer Corporation's plans for a research facility. The project was intended to compliment the facility by providing an adjoining hotel, an office complex for biotech companies and upscale housing. The project was strongly backed by X Governor John Rowland. (Now serving a year in prison for a 2004 corruption conviction.) Rowland, via Connecticut's Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) dangled millions of dollars in front of New London city officials. Being in a post industrial condition, they bit.

The project would require clearing the Thames River waterfront neighborhood of Fort Trumbull by eminent domain. If residents of the moderate income neighborhood had to leave so be it. As Claire Gaudiani, former President of Connecticut College and Rowland's pick to head the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) put it: "Anything that's working in our great nation is working because somebody left skin on the sidewalk".* A pattern of disregard for the residents of Fort Trumbull already existed. For years a sewage facility had cast its smell over the area; only when Pfizer arrived did public officials correct the problem. And while Pfizer and the NLDC were making plans, people buying homes or improving property in Fort Trumbull weren't told the neighborhood was slated to be bulldozed.

The New London Development Corporation (NLDC) is one of those ubiquitous unelected quasi-public agencies referenced above. Until Rowland, Gaudiani and Pfizer, a fairly low key one. But with access to massive amounts of public money and the high & mighty at the helm, plus the clout of eminent domain, the NLDC turned into Joan Crawford on a rose garden tear. As the NLDC emptied Fort Trumbull they bulldozed building after building. Despite the fact that no replacements were firmly agreed upon with a developer. Surrounded by empty muddy lots, seven Fort Trumbull property owners balked at vacating. But the NLDC refused to consider any alternate plan that would leave their homes and businesses standing. And served them with eviction notices the day before Thanksgiving in 2000. The residents had 3 months to get out. The resistors, including Susette Kelo and her husband Tim, had obtained the legal assistance of the Castle Coalition, a public interest group battling eminent domain abuse nationwide. In June, 2005, Kelo v. New London made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Where the use of eminent domain by governments and quasi-public agencies to advance private development got a 5 to 4 pass. NLDC now rules, right?

Not half. In the NLDC's website words, the victory was "bittersweet". Across the country, the public response to the Supreme Court ruling was overwhelmingly negative. New London, Connecticut and the NLDC were reviled as symbols of government power run amuck. Furthermore, the overall issue of eminent domain abuse had united both right and left. Since it linked concern for property rights with the knowledge that those most likely to be victimized were low and moderate income people. Both left and right invoked New London and the NLDC as examples of eminent domain abuse.

Not that outrage would have stayed the hand of the NLDC: by this point the agency seems to view itself as beyond good and evil. But what did act as a temporary brake-- and what no doubt was another "bittersweet" aspect of the Supreme Court ruling-- was that the Court allowed states to continue making their own laws re the use of eminent domain. In light of the public outcry, Connecticut lawmakers decided to reconsider those laws. In July they put a moratorium on eminent domain evictions until the process was complete. The NLDC agreed to abide by it. But 2 months later there they were again-- hammering on the doors of Fort Trumbull's last standing property owners. Giving them 30 to 90 days to vacate and demanding they pay rent to the NLDC during that period.

The NLDC took these steps without notifying either state or city officials. Governor Jodi Rell, who became governor after Rowland resigned in disgrace in 2004, hit the ceiling: she demanded the agency rescind the evictions. Current NLDC president Michael Joplin huffed some legalese but the agency was forced to comply. Claiming they thought the moratorium only applied to future development projects.

New London public officials have grown weary of the very agency city government turned loose on the residents of Fort Trumbull. By September Mayor Jane Glover, among others, was seeking a city council vote of no confidence in the NLDC and asking that its chief officers be removed. On 09/19/05 the Hartford Courant editorialized (New London's Chance To Heal) that the last homes left in Fort Trumbull should be incorporated into any future development plans and due to NLDC mishandling "The development is stalled, the neighborhood in ruins." On September 19th a meeting of the New London city council was scheduled. The NLDC vote was on the agenda. A call for a demonstration outside city hall had been issued by the Castle Coalition. A crowd of New London residents showed up for the city council meeting. But Fire Marshall Calvin Darrow had noticed a deteriorated fire escape. Hence only 49 people were to be allowed into the meeting room. Luckily there were lots of police with dogs present. Because the crowd got angry. One woman was arrested. The meeting was rescheduled for the next night at an unannounced location. It was almost as if there were worries about some kind of uprising.

On the evening of September 20th at a local high school, the New London City Council, before an audience on more than a hundred people, voted no confidence in the New London Development Corporation over its handling of the redevelopment of Fort Trumbull. The council also demanded the NLDC fire its president, Michael Joplin and chief executive officer David Goebel. And threatened that if Joplin and Goebel didn't vacate, the NLDC would be dissolved in a week. That the latter was a threat with teeth was made clear by the council when they noted that without their approval, the NLDC couldn't act for the city.

Considering what the past 6 years have meant to the image of New London, and most important, to the people of Fort Trumbull, one can't help but wish the city council had reined in the NLDC earlier. Or better yet, had never granted the power of eminent domain to the quasi-public unelected agency in the first place. Of course at an earlier point state government officials weren't pushing the city council to evict the NLDC leadership as they are now, nor threatening to pull the project that initially helped pump the agency's excesses.

As for the future, the true grit homeowners of Fort Trumbull may wind up residing amidst the redevelopment that threatened to displace them. And NLDC officers Joplin and Goebel? It's hard to imagine them meekly agreeing to become skin on the sidewalk. Land grabbers usually have to be pried off their perches. Something easily observed in assorted eminent domain battles raging across the nation. Not only are specific situations being contended, but lawmakers in myriad states are rushing to get on the public's good side and limit, and in some cases ban, the use of eminent domain by local development corporations. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee just wrapped up its first hearing on legislation proposing cutting federal funding to cities that use eminent domain to obtain private property for economic redevelopment projects. Isn't it funny how instead of turning eminent domain into a cakewalk for quasi-public unelected agencies, the U.S. Supreme Court decision has made land grabbers stew?

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

*Institute for Justice Litigation Backgrounder, Eminent Domain Without Limits? Institute for Justice

Sources Include:

"When Government Takes Too Much," Philip Langdon, Senior Editor New Urban News, City Comforts-- The Blog 03/05

Institute for Justice Litigation Backgrounder, "Eminent Domain Without Limits?" Institute for Justice 2004

"Governor Says Eviction notices must be taken back," AP/WTNH.com, 09/16/05

"Governor seeks to settle property controversy," theday.com 09/16/05

"NLDC agrees to rescind homeowners' notices to vacate," Noreen Gillespie, Susan Haigh, Associated Press 09/16/05

"New London's Chance to Heal," Hartford Courant, 09/19/05

"Fire code and angry crowd: New London postpones meeting," Boston.com, 09/19/05

"City Council votes no confidence in development authority," Associated Press/ABC 6 Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts News 09/21/05

"No confidence vote in New London for development agency," Michael Herzenberg, New London-WTNH.com, 09/20/05

"Bipartisan Support For Eminent Domain Reform," Greg Simmons, Fox News 09/20/05

"Lawmaker cautions against eminent domain in rebuilding: Maxine Waters sees threat to poor blacks in New Orleans," Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau, SF Gate 09/21/05

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Copyright (c) 2005 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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