NEW LONDON, CONN.
It began with phone calls from real estate agents urging him to sell his house. He told them it wasn't for sale — not when he'd lovingly rebuilt the place from the bottom up, not after his family had been living on this street near the Thames River for more than a century. But the agents kept calling, pressing him to sell.
The calls grew menacing. When he asked the agents whom they represented, they wouldn't say. But if he didn't accept their offer, they told him, the city would condemn his house and take it by eminent domain. Then he would get even less than they were offering. He was going to lose his house either way, they said, so he might as well sell it now.
And it wasn't only his house they were after. They were calling everyone in the neighborhood, telling them all the same thing: Sell now, before your house is taken. Most of his neighbors sold. He dug in his heels.
By the time the wreckers showed up, the identity of the party so intent on acquiring the whole riverfront was no longer a mystery. But by then it was too late to save the neighborhood. Seven homes on his street — and dozens of others nearby — were demolished. His own house, as he had been warned, was condemned. An official letter notified him that his house was being taken through eminent domain and that he had until May 1 to vacate the premises.
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It reads like the plot of a Mafia movie: Mobsters with City Hall connections muscle their way into valuable real estate. But there is nothing fictional here. What happened to Matt Dery — that's his story above — and six other homeowners in New London, Conn., is the subject of a lawsuit that opened in Connecticut Superior Court this week. At the heart of their suit is a simple question: Is there any limit to the power of eminent domain?
Matt and Suzanne Dery at the window of their New London home
The plaintiffs live in Fort Trumbull, a blue-collar section of New London rich in history and, until lately, neighborhood spirit. For much of the 20th century, it was a magnet for Italian immigrants, but over the years its fortunes had declined. Plagued by a foul-smelling sewer plant, separated from the rest of New London by railroad tracks, and located next to a contaminated mill site, Fort Trumbull was not a part of town to inspire covetous looks or attract many buyers.
But that was before Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, decided in 1998 to build its world research headquarters along the river just south of Fort Trumbull. City officials were ecstatic at landing a Fortune 100 company; the mayor called it "the greatest thing that's ever happened to New London." To capitalize on Pfizer's arrival, the city charged the New London Development Corporation with clearing out the 90 adjoining acres — which included Fort Trumbull — and replacing the homes and shops there with more lucrative development: offices, a conference center, upscale condominiums, a hotel.
Ruthlessly, the NLDC began effacing the old neighborhood. Using eminent domain as a club, it pressed homeowners to sell and bulldozed their homes when they left. The few who refused to sell eventually saw their properties condemned.
Some of those owners have never known any other home. Matt Dery grew up in Fort Trumbull; his 83-year-old mother was born in the house at Walbach and East streets and has lived there all her life. Other owners, like Susette Kelo, moved to the neighborhood despite its drawbacks because they loved what they found there — in Kelo's case, a Victorian home full of character overlooking the Thames, just minutes by boat from the fishing in Long Island Sound.
But to the NLDC and city hall, such considerations count for less than nothing. What matters to them is that by clearing Fort Trumbull and letting a private developer rebuild it, the city will expand its tax base. "The public benefit to this is far and away beyond the price that's being paid by a very small number of the community," says Christopher Riley, the NLDC spokesman.
But is that a sufficient reason to seize people's homes by eminent domain? Can private owners really be forced to give up their property because the government has identified other private owners who can make more money with them? Is that how the power of eminent domain is supposed to be used — to expel families from their homes for the sake of expanding the tax base?
No, says Scott Bullock. Not in America. Not while the Bill of Rights is in force.
Bullock is a litigator with the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based civil-liberties law firm that has fought eminent domain abuse in cases nationwide. It is representing the Fort Trumbull homeowners in their fight with New London, in part, as Bullock told the court in his opening argument, because a vital principle is at stake: The power of eminent domain is not unlimited.
"Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation," commands the Fifth Amendment. For public use — not for private gain. It is one thing to make an owner sell his land so that a school or post office can be built on it. But to dispossess one private owner so that another can be enriched — something municipalities have been doing with growing aggressiveness — is very different, and very wrong. The abuse of eminent domain has become a national plague, and the Institute for Justice is fighting to end it. The battle of Fort Trumbull bears watching.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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