Last stand for property-rights activists

A year after high court's key decision, New London, Conn., voted to evict homeowners.

The showdown in New London, Conn., over the city's seizure of homes to make way for private development is entering its final and contentious chapter.

Seven longtime residents of the city's Fort Trumbull neighborhood took their battle to save their homes all the way to the US Supreme Court. Now, nearly a year after the high court upheld the city's eminent domain power in a controversial 5-to-4 decision, two families are still fighting eviction. Efforts to negotiate a compromise appear to have ended.

On Monday, the New London City Council voted 5 to 2 to authorize the city attorney to obtain a court order to seize and demolish the homes of Susette Kelo and Michael Cristofaro.

Ms. Kelo's pink cottage at 8 East Street and Mr. Cristofaro's house a few blocks away have become symbols of defiance for property rights activists nationwide. And it is unclear what might happen should bulldozers suddenly arrive in the neighborhood.

"If I have to handcuff myself to the house I am willing to do that," says Mr. Cristofaro. "My father is 81 years old and he says he will cuff himself to the house."

Supporters have been phoning nonstop from around the country, Cristofaro says. Some are pledging to form a protective human chain around his home, if necessary.

New London Mayor Elizabeth Sabilia says it is time for the city to move forward with its plan to develop the proposed hotel and office complex. "We're seeking possession of the property," she says.

But the mayor adds that the council is still open to negotiations. "If they want to keep talking about it, we will," she says. "What is not an option is returning the deed to the former owners."

The ordeal has not been easy on anyone in the city. Mayor Sabilia says she and other council members have received death threats. But she says most New London residents support the development plan.

Cristofaro disputes this. "I want to know who is this silent majority that keeps telling [the council] I need to go," he says.

By moving forward with condemnation proceedings, the City Council rejected a compromise suggested by Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell. The governor's plan called for moving Cristofaro's home close to Ms. Kelo's and then allowing the rest of the development to continue around them.

But the mayor and a majority of councilmembers objected because it would allow Kelo and Cristofaro to regain their deeds and thus regain legal control of their properties.

Scott Bullock, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm representing the homeowners, says the city's vote on Monday was a raw exercise of power. "It was thumbing their nose at the governor and at the nation," he says. "No city government should put their citizens through this for the benefit of private developers."

Mr. Bullock says he will consult with Kelo and Cristofaro to determine how best to respond to actions by the city.

Matt Dery says one of the reasons he agreed to leave two weeks ago was that his mother had lived her entire life in a house at 28 East Street and was not interested in living elsewhere.

Last March, she passed away in the same bedroom where she had been born 88 years earlier.

Dery says if given a choice, he would prefer to stay. But he says he feels like the city is holding a gun to his head.

This week, Dery, his wife, and his 87-year-old father, began looking for a new home outside New London. He says "settlement" isn't the correct word for his dealings with the city. "We don't have a choice," he says. "We are on the end of somebody's boot."

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