By Scott Bullock
Given the disregard of constitutional rights by so many government officials and their allies, it is pretty difficult to be shocked by the behavior of individuals who think nothing of steamrolling the Constitution in pursuit of their grand schemes. But sometimes the attitude and actions of those in power are so ruthless, so offensive, that it shocks even those of us who treat this behavior almost as routine. They also serve as a stark reminder of the type of people we face in litigation.
Perhaps nowhere was this callous disregard for property rights more on display than in the recent actions of the City of New London and its ally, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC). As you may recall from our last newsletter, we represent a group of seven property owners (the New London Seven!) who are fighting to hold onto their homes and businesses in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The current controversy began in 1998 when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer built a plant next door to the neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, the City and the NLDC determined that someone other than the existing home and business owners could make better use of the land. So the government and the NLDC condemned these properties not for a public use, such as a road or public school, but for private economic development. The new development, consisting of a privately owned hotel, a health club, office space, new housing and other unspecified development projects is supposedly designed to enhance the Pfizer facility.
We filed suit on December 20, 2000 to challenge this outrageous abuse of eminent domain. Despite the fact that the City and the NLDC did not even have to answer our complaint until mid-February, in early December the NLDC applied for demolition permits for some of the properties owned by our clients. Under Connecticut law, there is a 60-day public notice period before a party can demolish a building. That period expired on February 5, 2001. While most of the properties owned by the plaintiffs are occupied (and therefore not in immediate danger), some of the properties are rental, and the NLDC was actively trying to move tenants out of the buildings. The NLDC claimed that because it filed eminent domain actions, it was now the real owner of the properties and that all remaining rents had to be paid to the NLDC (even though the original owners were still paying for mortgages and insurance). Moreover, one of the properties was vacant and under renovation by Richard Beyer, one of the property owners. (He had previously restored the house next door to pristine condition.) Come February 5, the NLDC could have demolished these properties.
IJ Client Bill Von Winkle painted this greeting on the side of his building, which is next to both a main road and railway into New London.
Because of the February 5 deadline, I contacted the NLDC’s legal counsel and asked whether the NLDC would voluntarily agree to suspend the demolitions of the properties owned by the plaintiffs until the court heard the case. (Almost all of our dealings in this case have been with the NLDC, a private corporation, because the City has incredibly—and unconstitutionally—given its eminent domain authority to a private development body.) NLDC’s counsel informed me that any decision on suspending the demolitions would have to be made by the NLDC’s board of directors at its next scheduled board meeting on February 13, 2001. I then inquired whether the NLDC would agree to suspend demolitions from February 5 (the date the NLDC could proceed with demolitions) to February 13 (the date of the board meeting). Demonstrating its arrogance and contempt for the law and the Constitution, the NLDC refused. That refusal to suspend the demolitions necessitated the Institute filing a motion for a temporary restraining order on January 31. It was the only way to ensure that the NLDC did not move to demolish the properties while the lawsuit over eminent domain progressed.
While I appeared in court on February 5 attempting to obtain a restraining order, property owners and their supporters held a vigil around the vacant property to ensure it was not demolished. As he describes in more detail the next column over, IJ Vice President for Communications John Kramer camped out overnight in the vacant, uninsulated, unheated property from midnight February 5 until the court appearance to guarantee that the NLDC did not move in with bulldozers to raze the properties until the court hearing. (Okay, in case you are wondering, I stayed at the Radisson, but I had to be coherent in court the next day!) The filing of the request for a restraining order and the February 5 hearing touched off two weeks of intense negotiations before Judge Robert Martin among the Institute for Justice, the City and the NLDC. These talks culminated in an agreement on February 21.
As a result of this agreement, the homes and businesses of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood will remain standing, occupied and rented until a decision has been reached in our challenge to the eminent domain actions. In addition to the guarantee that there will be no demolitions or evictions of the residents, the owners of the rental properties will also be able to rent out the properties during the course of the litigation. As mentioned previously, before we filed for the restraining order, the NLDC had claimed full ownership of the buildings, moved tenants out and argued that any rents remaining must be paid to the NLDC. That has been stopped. Now, the true owners of the buildings will be able to offer their apartments and homes for rent.
The agreement also set a schedule for resolving the case. Discovery will take place throughout the remainder of March and April, and the trial in the case is currently scheduled for May 21. The property owners can rest easy knowing that they will not lose their homes or incomes while the Institute focuses on the legal issues in the case.
Scott Bullock is a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.