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
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
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
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*Institute for Justice Litigation Backgrounder, Eminent Domain
Without Limits? Institute for Justice
"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,
"Governor seeks to settle property controversy," theday.com
"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,"
"City Council votes no confidence in development authority,"
Associated Press/ABC 6 Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts
"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
"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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