Connecticut Supreme Court Permits Eminent Domain Abuse; A Majority of the Court Rules Against Homeowners in New London

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 3, 2004

Washington, D.C.—By a narrow 4-3 majority, the Connecticut Supreme Court today ruled against homeowners in New London, Conn., and refused to halt an abuse of eminent domain by a city government and a private development corporation.

?This decision is very disappointing,? said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading legal advocate against eminent domain abuse. The Institute represented the property owners for free. ?The Court permitted the city and a private development corporation to abuse the rights of long-standing homeowners.

?This decision is not the end of the line,? said Dana Berliner, IJ senior attorney. ?We will explore all legal options to keeping these people in their homes, including appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. This grave injustice must be remedied.?

The Institute’s lawsuit on behalf of New London property owners is part of its 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.

Over four years ago, the City and the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) decided that private developers with plans to enhance the Pfizer facility built next door could make better use of the land than the existing home owners in Fort Trumbull. The City Council transferred its power of eminent domain to the NLDC; this private group makes all the decisions on development in Fort Trumbull, including how and when to trigger the use of eminent domain on the homeowners. The NLDC has spent the last several years razing property in Fort Trumbull. Left standing amid the rubble are the homes of a group of committed property owners, including a family who has lived in Fort Trumbull for more than 100 years and in the same house since 1905.

Matt Dery, one of IJ’s clients fighting for his family’s homes, said, ?My family has lived in Fort Trumbull since 1895, when my great-grandmother’s family arrived from Italy. My mother was born in her house at 87 Walbach Street, next door to mine, in 1918. This decision is a devastating loss for me, my family and my neighbors, but, as we have all along, we will continue the fight.?

Despite the loss, the Institute for Justice has been helping to lead a remarkable trend across the nation against the abuse of eminent domain—where the government takes one person’s private property only to hand that land over to another private party for private use:

  • Yesterday [March 2, 2004], voters in Lakewood, Ohio, passed ?Issue 10,? which repealed the ?blight? label from the city’s West End neighborhood. As long as the label was in place, the City could use eminent domain to tear down the neighborhood for a private developer. Voters repealed the blight label with more than 63 percent of the vote (8278 to 4831). (On November 2, 2003, Lakewood voters defeated ?Issue 47,? which threatened to displace about 1,000 homeowners, tenants and business owners from their property in the city’s West End so a private developer could construct an upscale mall and high-priced condominiums.)
  • On October 2, 2003, the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the City of Mesa’s use of eminent domain. The City of Mesa had sought to take Randy Bailey’s brake shop so it could make way for an expansion of a privately owned Ace hardware store. Both the Mesa and Lakewood cases were featured recently on 60 Minutes.
  • On September 24, 2003, in New York, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed procedural barriers from a challenge to New York eminent domain law. The law allows local governments to take private property without even individually notifying the owner until it is too late to object. IJ brought that suit on behalf of an entrepreneur who is defending his property from the Village of Port Chester, which seeks to give his well-maintained property to a private developer for a Stop & Shop parking lot.

IJ vows that the growing judicial and grassroots movement against the abuse of eminent domain will continue in this case and in others. IJ battles to protect the rights of property owners to save their homes and businesses rage on in Norwood, Ohio; and in New York state. Over the past years, IJ has already scored victories against the abuse of eminent domain in court and in the court of public opinion in Atlantic City, N.J.; Canton, Miss.; Pittsburgh, Penn.; and Baltimore, Md.

In a case not litigated by the Institute for Justice, two days ago [on Monday, March 1, 2004], the Colorado Supreme Court overturned the City of Arvada’s effort to condemn part of a privately owned lake for a Wal-Mart project. The decision was a sharp rebuke to aggressive urban renewal authorities.