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Fort Trumbull's End: No Whimper, Big Bang.
August 31, 2006: After years of legal wrangling, government proceedings and pay-outs, political repercussions, community destruction, personal tragedy and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that touched off a national firestorm, the eminent domain battle of Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut has ended. Not with a whimper but with a great big bang of public money.

In the late 90's, the city of New London announced that the waterfront neighborhood of Fort Trumbull was slated for a total makeover. The impetus for the redevelopment came from the state-- and from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., the creators of Viagra. Pfizer had recently moved its headquarters to New London, with the assistance of some $118 million in state development incentives. The primary financial support for the Fort Trumbull makeover would come from Connecticut's Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). At local levels the moving forces behind the plan were the city administration and the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) a private, nonprofit corporation. The unelected NLDC acted as hammer for state and city. Until the state threw its power and money into the Fort Trumbull plan, the NLDC was a moribund booster agency. And until Pfizer relocated to New London, the city seemed to have forgotten about Fort Trumbull. Some say to the point of neglect.

New London sits at the mouth of the Thames River on the northeast shore of the Long Island Sound. Fort Trumbull is set off from the rest of the city on a peninsula. Many of Fort Trumbull's structures were in the style of New England whaling villages of the 1800's, or beach towns of the 1920's. By the late 90's some buildings were run down and slummy. But others were well kept and attractive. The neighborhood contained a mix of tenants and property owners. Fort Trumbull's property owners included elderly immigrants who'd lived in the neighborhood most, if not all of their lives. Family members lived with them or nearby. Other owners were relative newcomers attracted to a neighborhood that needed improvement, but which still had character and community warmth. By and large, property owners in Fort Trumbull sincerely wished for redevelopment; they wanted the best for their neighborhood.

Yet despite their property titles and the property taxes paid over the years, Fort Trumbull was not "their" neighborhood. When push came to shove-- and it most certainly did-- Fort Trumbull belonged to the state, the city and the New London Development Corporation (NLDC). Who claimed redeveloping the neighborhood meant it had to be destroyed. In order to clear the way for an upscale hotel, condo and office park which would enhance the nearby facilities of Pfizer Inc. far better than a collection of frame houses filled with elderly immigrants, small landlords, store keepers, and assorted blue collar types.

So that none of these undesirables would think of hanging around where they weren't wanted, or of holding out for too much money for their homes and businesses, the state, city and NLDC used government's power of eminent domain to take their property. Take what you want says God-- and pay for it. So goes a Spanish proverb. So does the U.S. Constitution re eminent domain and private property. But only when needed for "public use".

Public projects justifying the use of eminent domain (also called condemnation or "taking") have traditionally been interpreted to mean things such as schools, dams, and roads. Condemnation is also used in severely blighted neighborhoods. However, the state, city and NLDC never designated Fort Trumbull as blighted or claimed Hoover Dam North would rise in its place. Instead, the "public use" rationale was the projected gathering of higher tax revenues from a projected pile of pricier private real estate.

New London's interpretation of "public use" isn't singular. The same rationale is used across the nation. Particularly in places where local budgets are stretched thin, property taxes are onerous, and public servants can't or won't cut spending. Thankfully many Americans, even those being gouged unmercifully, realize that once government starts snapping up private property to fund itself, nobody's space is safe. Which is one reason why the public, to an overwhelming degree, despises the sort of eminent domain used on Fort Trumbull. Another is the realization that the people most likely to be dispossessed are those with limited means and no political clout.

In Fort Trumbull most property owners folded in the face of government power and when paid more-or-less market value. But a small group proved recalcitrant. Among them Susette Kelo, the owner of a renovated Victorian era cottage. With legal assistance from the libertarian Castle Coalition, Kelo and 8 other property owners made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only to be beaten back in June 2005 by the court's 5-4 split decision re Kelo v. City of New London. Justice Sandra Day O' Conner's blistering dissent made her a hero to homeowners. She eloquently defended the property rights of average citizens, saying "government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more." Justice O'Conner also invoked the James Madison dictum that just government "impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own."

To the surprise of many, the Supreme Court loss didn't speed the plow in Fort Trumbull. The publicity was hellacious. New London, Connecticut had become a national symbol of eminent domain abuse, around which growing concern over eroding property rights coalesced. As did growing concern about development uber alles-- particularly the kind which rolls uber low and middle income communities. The Fort Trumbull land grab had made bedfellows out of the right and left. The blogosphere was burning. Meanwhile, several Fort Trumbull resistors were proclaiming they wouldn't go gently into the night. The possibility loomed of having to forcibly remove a bunch of John and Jane Does from their homes. In front of an army of news media and demonstrators. Bureaucrats at state and local levels, who thought the supreme command of the Supreme Court had put an end to all dispute, were confused and enraged by having won the battle yet still having to fight a war. For a year after the court call, state and city reps, plus the quasi-public NLDC, dithered and argued among themselves. While alternately bullying, and bargaining with, the remaining residents of Fort Trumbull.

During that year Wilhelmina Dery, a lifelong resident of Fort Trumbull died. She died in the house where she was born in 1918. After Mrs. Dery passed away, her son accepted the government buy-out. One by one, a few other resistors did likewise. When push came to shove-- as it most certainly did-- the Supreme Court decision, despite public opinion, meant the ex-owners were living on borrowed time. And in the eyes of state and city government and the unelected NLDC, on borrowed property.

In 2000, when the properties of Fort Trumbull's owners were officially condemned, the NLDC had taken possession of their titles and put the purchase money supplied by the state in escrow. The NLDC contended that from that point on, those who refused to surrender their property owed rent to the city and NLDC. They also contended that landlords in Fort Trumbull owed any rent they collected to the city and NLDC. And that the ex- property owners should be paying property taxes.

By 2006 the NLDC had toted up quite a bill of back charges for the ex-owners. Even the escrow payments wouldn't stop the hit from damaging them badly. Though Republican Governor Jodi Rell and the Democrat controlled state legislature might have been able to step in and save the day by demanding the owners' property titles be returned, this wasn't going to happen. Governor Rell, aka "the candy-coated grandma", seemed distressed by the owners' situation and by eminent domain in general. She called for state reform, further negotiations, and bigger offers of public cash, but a full pardon was out of the question my dears. The state legislature claimed to want eminent domain reform but spent the 2005/2006 session passing the hot potato around the room. Connecticut's powerful urban pols, and the Department of Economic and Community Development, have come to rely on eminent domain.

None the less, the state legislature did manage to come together to recommend an office of ombudsman be created to mediate future eminent domain disputes. Taxpayers can add the price of the projected position (and disputes) to their bill for the eminent domain battle of Fort Trumbull. On top of the cost of 8 years of legal proceedings and assorted government hoo hah. Such as the consultant who repeatedly mediated squabbles between public officials, the NLDC, and the waffling private developer-- and eventually negotiated with the Fort Trumbull resistors. Try to ignore the thought that if the original redevelopment plan had been an in-fill one which blended new buildings with old, the improved neighborhood might have been generating improved tax revenues for years-- as opposed to lying fallow as a collection of bulldozed muddy lots.

Then there's the cost of buying out Fort Trumbull's final resistors.

On top of the money originally put in escrow, the unelected NLDC was given access by the state to roughly $1.4 million in public money to sweeten the hit-the-road deal. Several of the last ex-owners bowed out after being paid from the 1.4 million. They'd been told this was all the extra money the state would cough up. After they settled, close to another million was added to entice the last few resistors. Leaving those who'd already settled feeling like chumps and adding a nice divisive twist to the mix. Ultimately, it took a total of roughly $4.1 million (including the escrow money) for taxpayers to pick up the 12 properties once owned by the last 6 families. Several of the buildings were multi-family rental properties, the rest single and two family homes. Taxpayers shouldn't expect to view these properties. Bulldozers are on the way. Though Susette Kelo's cottage is apparently being moved. A solution she proposed years ago.

Some might say that in the end, the ex-owners of Fort Trumbull leveraged broad anti-eminent domain sentiment and the fear of further negative publicity to force the state to cut a better deal. And that statements made by some resistors to the effect of "hell no we won't go" may have been tactical. If so, what of it? After the Supreme Court decision, what other weapon did the ex-owners have? Their property rights, including the right to bargain in free market conditions, had been stolen along with their property. After fighting long years to have their rights restored, and after suffering numerous personal tragedies connected to the loss of those rights, the last handfull of resistors faced the inexorable end game of being removed from their property by force-- as well as being charged heavily for the privilege of having it stolen. To the point where their lives, and the lives of their families, would be severely impacted. If the ex-owners did play the last hand dealt them with some degree of calculation, they did so against a majorly and unfairly advantaged opponent. In a battle they didn't open.

Even when reasonable payment is given, property transactions conducted under the threat of force breed resentment. And being pushed off one's land by government in order to make way for a project deemed more upscale or tax profitable, will inevitably stiffen some people's backbone and make them pick up whatever weapon is at hand. A good thing too. Or else developers (the ones with brains) wouldn't be expressing increasing reluctance to have governments "speed" their projects with eminent domain. Nor would the claim that eminent domain is a sure-fire, cost effective, quick trip to revitalization be losing credibility.

What bites about the Fort Trumbull deal is not that the hold-outs got more than originally offered, but that the money spent on "taking" the neighborhood, doesn't come from the personal coffers of those who strove for years to do so. As in-- various officials connected to the state and city government and the unelected NLDC. Instead the cash comes from taxpayers. Including federal ones. Since Connecticut's Department of Economic and Community Development, the financial force behind the taking, razing, and projected revitalization of Fort Trumbull, is partly funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But hey-- you have to spend money to make money. Even if the real estate market is softening, the projected tax revenues from the Pfizer enhancing hotel, condos and offices will be rolling in any day now. As surely as the Thames rolls out to meet the Long Island Sound-- round the peninsula where the neighborhood of Fort Trumbull once stood.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

"The records-- obtained by the Day through the state Freedom of Information Act-- show that, at least as early as the fall of 1997, Pfizer executives and state economic development officials were discussing the company's plans, not just for a new research facility, but for the surrounding neighborhood as well."

The Day, New London's newspaper, 10/16/05

"New London has been taken from the scrap heap of North American cities by the Pfizer Company...without the eminent domain in this case, New London would still be waddling in it's welfare society dung and municipal helplessness."

Feedback from "Diogenes" (possibly a pseudonym) re other Mondo QT coverage of Fort Trumbull. 07/12/06

Sources include but are not limited to:

"Fort Trumbull Saga Ends On Costly Note," Ted Mann, The Day, 08/23/06

"Settlement Details released in eminent domain case," Associated Press, 08/22/06

"Susette Kelo Lost Her Rights But She Will Keep Her Home," Scott Bullock, Liberty & Law, Institute for Justice, 08/06

Kelo v. New London (04-108) Supreme Court of the United States, Case Opinions. Dissent by: (Justice) O'Conner. Joined by: Renquist, Scalia, Thomas. 06/23/05

Kelo v. City of New London, Wikipedia

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Copyright (c) 2006 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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