Majority of Fort Trumbull Homeowners Win, Others To Appeal

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 13, 2002

Washington, D.C.-Property owners represented by the Institute for Justice today won a landmark challenge to eminent domain abuse in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Connecticut.

Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Corradino decided that four of the property owners who own 11 properties (on property known as Parcel 4A) won their case outright while three other property owners (located on Parcel 3) will retain possession of their homes while their case is on appeal.

“This is a great day for these property owners and the Constitution,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. “We are absolutely thrilled that most homeowners’ rights were upheld and that they will be permitted to stay in the homes they know and love so dearly. And we will of course appeal the decisions for the remainder as they remain where they should be: in their homes.”

“I now know how someone who has been wrongly imprisoned for four years feels,” said Matt Dery, whose family’s homes were slated for taking and demolition. “But two questions remain: what was I doing here in the first place and how do I get my four years back? I just thank God the Institute for Justice took our case and vindicated our rights. My mother can now rest in her home and not leave until she wants to.”

The New London Development Corporation (NLDC) moved to condemn the homes and businesses of IJ clients The Dery Family, The Cristofaro Family, Susette Kelo, Richard Beyer, Thelma Brelesky, James and Laura Guretsky and Bill Von Winkle in the fall of 2000. On December 20, 2000, the property owners, with the help of the Institute for Justice, began to fight back with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NLDC’s abuse of eminent domain. Eminent domain is the government’s power to take private property for a public use.

Increasingly, governments across the nation take private property not for a public use but for private businesses in the name of “economic development.” The NLDC’s effort to take property in Fort Trumbull is a premier example of this kind of abuse of power. The City of New London delegated its eminent domain authority to the NLDC, a private—and, therefore, unaccountable—development corporation in 2000.

“Eminent domain was meant for public projects—which are owned by and accessible to the public—not for private office space,” stressed Dana Berliner, another senior attorney at the Institute. “The framers of the Constitution included this restriction because they realized that the power to throw someone out of a home or ruin a business was one of the most despotic and drastic powers of government. The City and the NLDC should have realized that it couldn’t be used for private economic development.”

The New London 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 battle lines in the neighborhood have been drawn for over three years. The City and the NLDC wanted 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, was not interested in selling and leaving the neighborhood. They want to keep their homes and businesses.

The Institute for Justice works to restore substance to the constitutional requirement that property can only be taken by the government 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.