Susette Kelo dreamed of owning a home that looked out over the water. She purchased and lovingly restored her little pink house where the Thames River meets the Long Island Sound in 1997, and had enjoyed the great view from its windows. The Dery family, up the street from Susette, had lived in Fort Trumbull since 1895; Matt Dery and his family lived next door to his mother and father. Matt’s mother was born in her house in 1918 and had never lived anywhere else. The richness and vibrancy of this neighborhood reflected the American ideal of community and the dream of homeownership.
Tragically, the City of New London turned that dream into a nightmare.
In 1998, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer built a plant next to Fort Trumbull and the City determined that someone else could make better use of the land than the Fort Trumbull residents. The City handed over its power of eminent domain—the ability to take private property for public use—to the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), a private body, to take the entire neighborhood for private development. As the Fort Trumbull neighbors found out, when private entities wield government’s awesome power of eminent domain and can justify taking property with the nebulous claim of “economic development,” all homeowners are in trouble.
The fight over Fort Trumbull eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Court in 2005, in one of the most controversial rulings in its history, held that economic development was a “public use” under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision against Kelo and her neighbors sparked a nation-wide backlash against eminent domain abuse, leading eight state supreme courts and 43 state legislatures to strengthen protections for property rights. Moreover, Kelo educated the public about eminent domain abuse, and polls consistently show that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to Kelo and support efforts to change the law to better protect home and small business owners. Moreover, in the five years since the Kelo decision, citizen activists have defeated 44 projects that sought to abuse eminent domain for private development.
Meanwhile, in New London, the Fort Trumbull project has been a dismal failure. After spending close to 80 million in taxpayer money, there has been no new construction whatsoever and the neighborhood is now a barren field. In 2009, Pfizer, the lynchpin of the disastrous economic development plan, announced that it was leaving New London for good, just as its tax breaks are set to expire.
But Susette Kelo’s iconic little pink house was saved and moved to a new location. You can visit the historic, Kelo House, which is now the home of local preservationist Avner Gregory, at its new location in downtown New London: 36 Franklin Street (at the intersection of Franklin and Cottage Streets).
For a compelling account of the history and back-story of the New London controversy, read Jeff Benedict’s Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage published in 2009 by Grand Central Publishing.