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A fight to keep their homes

Is it 'public use' when a city seizes homes and gives them to a private developer? The Supreme Court takes up the question.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 2005


Economic redevelopment is supposed to be about progress and prosperity. But in the battle over the future of this city's Fort Trumbull neighborhood, longtime residents say the city's tough tactics have caused them only hardship and suffering.

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This is particularly so, they say, among the neighborhood's elderly residents, many of whom have lived their golden years in fear and dread of losing their most prized possession - their home.

"I am a 93-year-old homeowner of Fort Trumbull [and] have lived here all my life. This is our home. My wife and I do not want to leave here." Walter Pasqualini wrote those words in 1998 in a plea to discourage the city from taking court action to seize and demolish his house.

"The last thing he said before he died was, 'What are they going to do with my house in Fort Trumbull?' " says Susette Kelo, a neighbor.

Ms. Kelo and a handful of other residents are all that remain of more than 80 families whose homes and businesses were targeted for demolition by the city of New London to make way for a 90-acre economic redevelopment project.

They aren't alone. Their plight mirrors similar battles under way nationwide.

Now, as the debate over the redevelopment effort heads to a US Supreme Court hearing next week and a possible landmark ruling in late June, residents are speaking out about what they see as hard-fisted tactics they have endured while trying to save their homes from wrecking cranes and bulldozers.

Although the US Constitution authorizes public seizure of private property, this case - Kelo v. New London - tests the limits of that power. At issue is whether a government entity, the New London Development Corp. (NLDC), can seize and demolish private homes and then turn the vacant land over to a private developer.

The precise issue before the high court is whether this kind of arrangement between a city and a private developer violates the Fifth Amendment mandate that private property may be taken by the government only for "public use."

Lawyers for the residents say public use is something like a road, school, or park - projects that broadly benefit the community. New London officials say an economic development project run by a private company qualifies as public use because it will ultimately attract new businesses to the city and increase the city's tax revenues, which is also a benefit to the community.

The underlying legal debate is only a small part of the Fort Trumbull residents' tale. They say the city tried to frighten them away. When those threats did not work, the city waged what some call a psychological war.

"They did everything they could to make us miserable," says Kelo.

"Every day it was something else," adds William Von Winkle, a neighborhood resident and landlord for 21 years. "Anything to aggravate you."

New London's side of the story

City officials offer a different perspective. When the drug company Pfizer decided to locate its $300 million global research headquarters on an abandoned riverfront factory site near Fort Trumbull, local leaders saw it as a golden opportunity to revitalize the city's stagnant tax base. The influx of highly paid scientists and potential spinoff companies might transform the area into a mecca of scientific innovation and commerce.

The plan calls for construction of a waterfront complex of offices, condos, a hotel, a conference center, and a marina - all within a short walk of the Pfizer compound.

Much of the development is slated for vacant land once occupied by a US Navy research facility. But the plan also calls for the destruction of the adjacent Fort Trumbull neighborhood, which lies between the vacant land and the Pfizer compound.

The NLDC was authorized to use eminent domain powers to seize and demolish any properties where homeowners refused to leave voluntarily. Under the plan, once the land is cleared it is to be leased for $1 a year for 99 years to a private company to build and manage the project. All profits revert to the company. The benefit to the city: an increased tax base.