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
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
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,
"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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