Arlington, Va.—Can government officials throw you out of your home just because a private developer tells them to?
That is the question asked by a major constitutional lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of West Haven resident Bob McGinnity and his family. The McGinnity family has been in West Haven for more than 50 years—and for Bob’s entire life—but its two properties near the city’s waterfront are slated for the bulldozer because a Texas-based developer has told the city it wants to use them to build a shopping mall.
“Imagine someone coming to your front door and telling you ‘we are taking your house,’” said Bob McGinnity. “That is what everybody should be thinking when you think about eminent domain.”
If this sounds familiar, it should: Connecticut was the site of the landmark Kelo v. New London case, the widely reviled 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held government officials could use eminent domain to take private property based on nothing more than a promise to generate more tax revenue. The decision launched a nationwide backlash—44 states reformed their eminent domain laws, and nine state supreme courts have rejected the Kelo decision. Twelve years later, the neighborhood destroyed by New London is a vacant lot, but the lesson of Kelo is clear: Eminent domain abuse destroys communities and fails to spark development.
“This case is worse than Kelo,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara, who is representing the McGinnity family. “In Kelo, the courts held that government officials could use a private developer to advance a redevelopment plan. But here, a private developer is using the government. West Haven did not want a shopping mall; the developer did. West Haven did not come up with a plan for this area; the developer did. And West Haven did not decide to take the McGinnitys’ properties; the developer did. That is not just wrong. It is unconstitutional.”
In addition to the prospect of losing the childhood home where he still lives, Bob McGinnity is facing the prospect of losing his family. Bob’s uncle, Michael Perrone, suffered a devastating heart attack and stroke last year—only a month after learning that his longtime home was under the threat of eminent domain. Today, Michael lives downstairs from Bob in their home on First Avenue in West Haven, allowing Bob to provide the kind of in-home care his uncle needs. If they are forced out, this life-saving arrangement will be destroyed.
“There is simply no reason not to build around the McGinnitys’ homes,” explained IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty. “The developer could simply move a few stores. Bob has even offered to sell the developer his backyard if he can be allowed to keep the home. The developer can build this project without kicking Bob McGinnity out of his home—it just doesn’t want to.”
The controversy in West Haven is part of a national resurgence in eminent domain abuse. After years of relative quiet in the wake of Kelo and the housing-market crash of 2008, land-hungry developers have teamed up with tax-hungry bureaucrats in state after state, with controversies brewing everywhere from Connecticut to Georgia to California and beyond.
“Kelo was a black mark on the state of Connecticut and on the U.S. Constitution,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock, who argued the Kelo case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. “At a time when everyone should be working together to erase that mark, West Haven is trying to make it even bigger. They will be stopped.”