Institute for Justice Files Lawsuit Challenging Eminent Domain Abuse in New London, Connecticut

John Kramer
John Kramer · December 20, 2000

Washington, D.C.-Increasingly, governments across the nation take private property not for a public use, such as roads or public schools, but for private businesses in the name of “economic redevelopment.” In a premier example of eminent domain abuse, the City of New London and a private body—the New London Development Corporation (NLDC)—are condemning homes and businesses in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for privately owned health club, office space and unspecified development projects. But on December 20, 2000, the property owners, with the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, have begun to fight back.

“We will do everything in our power to protect these individuals’ constitutional rights—to protect their homes and businesses from the abuse of eminent domain,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading legal advocate against eminent domain abuse. On December 20, the Institute filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of New London seeking to stop the condemnations.

“Eminent domain was meant for roads or other public projects, not for a health club,” Bullock added. The lawsuit is part of the Institute’s nationwide campaign to stop eminent domain abuse—the unethical and unconstitutional marriage of convenience between developers and government that seeks to take privately owned land for another’s economic benefit, not for a public use.

The controversy began in 1998 when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer built a plant next door to the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, the City and its ally, the NLDC, determined that someone else could, in their opinion, make better use of the land than the existing home and business owners in Fort Trumbull. So the government and the NLDC began to condemn these properties and kick out the owners. The new development will supposedly enhance the new Pfizer facility. In fact, in December 2000, Pfizer guaranteed a $2 million dollar line of credit for use as working capital by the NLDC.

The battle lines in the neighborhood have been drawn. The City and the NLDC want everyone out; but a group of committed property owners, including a property owner whose family has lived in Fort Trumbull for more than 100 years and in the same house since 1901, are not interested in selling and leaving the neighborhood. They want to keep their homes and businesses.

“We are here to serve notice on the City and the NLDC that the day of the bully is over,” said William Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute. “The City and Claire Gaudiani [head of the NLDC] can no longer push around these people and get away with it.”

The City Council transferred its awesome power of eminent domain to the NLDC. This group, headed by Claire Gaudiani, former president of Connecticut College, now makes all the decisions on redevelopment in Fort Trumbull, including how and when to trigger the use of eminent domain on the home and business owners.

“The NLDC’s callous attitude is bulldoze now, work out deals with developers later,” Bullock said. “That is not how a government should act in the United States.”

“The property owners in Fort Trumbull are not against development, and they don’t want to take the money and run,” Bullock said. “They merely wish to stay in the neighborhood they know and love.”

But not everyone in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood is being removed. Demonstrating how the politically powerful are immune from eminent domain abuse, the Italian Dramatic Club, a social club that is popular with politically powerful individuals and is located in the exact same neighborhood, was informed in September 2000 that it could remain in the neighborhood. The NLDC, however, has refused to spare any of the other privately owned properties in the area.

The Institute for Justice works to restore substance to the constitutional requirement that property can only be taken for public use, not for the benefit of private parties. In 1998, the Institute successfully defended Vera Coking, an elderly widow from Atlantic City, against the attempts by a New Jersey state agency to condemn her house of more than 35 years for Donald Trump’s casino across the street. The Institute also successfully spearheaded a campaign against eminent domain abuse in downtown Pittsburgh, where the city mayor proposed taking more than 60 buildings and 120 privately owned businesses to give the property to a developer to build an urban shopping mall. In November 2000, the mayor abandoned his plans and pledged not to use eminent domain in future efforts to develop the area. In October 2000, the Institute also filed a lawsuit in federal district court in New York challenging New York’s unconstitutional eminent domain procedures and asking for an injunction to prevent the condemnations of business properties and a church.