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

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.

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.

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"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.

Residents say that if New London wins its case at the US Supreme Court, any private property in the country could be targeted for economic development through eminent domain to facilitate increased tax revenues. Lakeside cottages, they warn, could be snatched away to permit high-rise condominium developments. And mom and pop grocery stores could be torn down to make way for more profitable stores.

The issue is at the center of what has become a seven-year battle between neighborhood residents seeking to remain in their homes and city officials struggling for a chance to realize their broader vision of a revitalized New London. In essence, the city's plan is to destroy a neighborhood in order to help save the city.

"The New London City Council that voted to do this, they were friends and neighbors of these people," says NLDC attorney Edward O'Connell. "This was a very difficult situation. This was not some unthinking, unfeeling municipal machine that simply ground down there."

In the 1800s New London was a thriving whaling port, and later it was a manufacturing center. By 1990, the state designated New London as a "distressed municipality." Unemployment is 7.6 percent - twice the statewide average.

But the real source of the problem is a lack of sizable tracts for commercial development. The city is relatively small - less than six square miles - and more than 55 percent of that area is occupied by tax-exempt land used for colleges, government buildings, and hospitals. Tax revenues cover only half the city's annual budget; the rest is paid by state subsidy.

An opportunity to change

To city officials, the project is an opportunity to guide the city back toward economic prosperity.

"New London had this opportunity to do something," says Mr. O'Connell. "Should [city leaders] let the private sector drift along as it has been for 100 years without doing anything at all? Or should they seize this opportunity that will occur only once in the history of the city?"

Fort Trumbull residents say they are not opposed to redevelopment. But why can't their homes - which occupy 1.54 acres of the 90-acre project tract - be retained as part of the redevelopment process, they ask. That would probably be the outcome should they win their case, analysts say.

The city has rejected such a compromise. O'Connell says it is up to the City Council to decide upon the best plan, not a handful of holdouts.

Fort Trumbull residents say they've long been slighted by the city. When New London needed a place to locate the sewage treatment plant, Fort Trumbull won the prize. On hot summer days with no breeze, the stench blanketed the area, but residents say their complaints and protests were routinely ignored.

The pervasive odor spewed forth for years - until the arrival of Pfizer. The city and state spent $11.2 million to upgrade the sewage plant in 2001.

Neighborhood residents were excited when they heard Pfizer was coming. But it soon became clear that there was no place for them in the city's plans.

What happened next is what Matt Dery calls "neighborhood cleansing."

Residents say they were told they had no alternative, they could either accept the amount being offered by the city for their homes or the city would seize their property under eminent domain powers.

"The majority of the elderly people moved because they were afraid or felt threatened," says Suzanne Dery.

"We don't want that to happen to my parents. That's our perspective on this," adds her husband, who works in the circulation department of the local newspaper. His family has occupied the property at the same street corner in Fort Trumbull for almost a century. "All my family as far back as my great-grandmother were on this property," he says.

His mother, now 86, was born in the blue house with white trim on the corner of Walbach and East Streets in 1917. It is the only house in which she has ever lived. Mr. Dery's father has lived with her in the blue house since they were married in 1945.

Low-ball offers, or fair?

When the city first approached Dery, he was offered $208,000 for all four multistory houses on the family's property. When he turned down the offer, the property was seized through eminent domain.

Dery says low-ball appraisals were part of a deliberate strategy. "Their whole plan hinged on us being the kind of people who didn't have the financial wherewithal to fight this," he says. "They had all the money, and they were going to stretch us out financially so we would crack."

Dery and his neighbors admit that had it not been for the pro bono intervention of lawyers from the Institute for Justice, in Washington, they would have lost their homes long ago.

Under the eminent domain process, the city can negotiate the voluntary sale of a targeted property. It can offer whatever it thinks a homeowner might accept. If an offer is refused, the city can continue to negotiate or file papers in court to have the property seized. Once the property is seized, the owner has a right to challenge in court the fairness of the price. But to launch such a challenge, the owner would have to go through the expense of hiring a lawyer and paying open-ended trial costs. These are expenses most working-class and elderly Fort Trumbull residents could not afford.

City officials decline to discuss individual cases, but say that they negotiated in good faith with every resident.

O'Connell says all the other neighborhood residents have been successfully relocated. He adds that the city does not have to tailor its plans to a small group of holdouts.

"We certainly sympathize with their plight. Everyone understands that it is a wrenching circumstance," the NLDC attorney says. "You think we are so heartless that we don't care about these people?"

Dery's Neighbor, Mr. Von Winkle was offered $300,000 for his three buildings, including a three-story brick apartment house. "Their offer was less than I paid for the materials to renovate the buildings," he says.

After his buildings were seized, city officials approached Von Winkle's tenants and offered to cut their rent from $650 to $450 a month if they would pay their rent to the city rather than Von Winkle. When Von Winkle complained that rent money was his only source of income, the city offered $4,500 cash to any tenant who moved out.

Undeterred, Von Winkle re-rented his apartments. The city responded with a court order. "They filed an injunction to stop me from interfering with the peaceful enjoyment of their property," he says.

Byron Athenian lost his 24-year auto body business because it was on leased land and the owner sold the property to the NLDC. Mr. Athenian now works part time. He lives next door to the now-vacant lot in a house owned by his mother. She refuses to sell.

The house sits on sloping property adjacent to a tract slated for an office parking lot. Despite Athenian's continued presence in the house, city contractors raised the level of adjacent road and park lot tract, leaving the home and property in a man-made swale. "When it rains like in the spring the cellar [floods]," he says. "The fire department has been pretty good; they come down and pump it out."

O'Connell says eminent domain is a harsh but necessary tool of urban redevelopment. He asks if the debate would be any different if Fort Trumbull homes were being seized to make way for a road instead of an economic development project.

"Wouldn't there be turmoil and fear if it was a road? What if it was a school? Wouldn't there be turmoil and fear if it was a school?" he asks. "Is it OK to have turmoil and fear to move elderly people out for a road, but not for economic development?"

Walter Pasqualini's beloved white house with red trim is still standing nearly five years after his death. But it is barely habitable. Smith Street has been torn up and lies under six feet of fill dirt that forms a berm outside the Pasqualinis' front porch. Rainwater poured into the basement deep enough to douse the furnace pilot light.

Walter's wife, Cesarina, is 96. Unable to see and hear, she is living temporarily with her daughter across town. Even now, she refuses to sell. Neighbors say she hopes to return home to Fort Trumbull, soon.

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