Battle over property rights goes on, despite ruling

A mediator will decide if homes in New London, Conn., will be razed to make way for private development.

The moment of truth is yet to arrive in the now-famous Fort Trumbull neighborhood in New London, Conn.

Six months after the US Supreme Court ruled that the city could seize and demolish private homes to make way for a commercial development project, determined residents are still living in their homes in the targeted neighborhood.

There have been no bulldozers. No wrecking balls. No police officers dragging homeowners away. At least, not yet.

Instead, the state of Connecticut has hired a mediator to try to find a more peaceful solution to the seven-year battle that has touched off a heated debate over the government's use of eminent domain to foster economic development.

To property rights activists across the nation, Fort Trumbull has become ground zero in that battle ever since the high court's 5-4 ruling. These activists are using outrage over the case to spearhead a reform movement aimed at passing laws to make it increasingly difficult for local and state governments to raze homes and turn the land over to private developers.

"It has to be one of the most vilified Supreme Court decisions in history - where people understood the issues, understood the result, and didn't like it," says Scott Sawyer, a member of the legal team representing the homeowners.

On the other side of the debate are government officials, planners, urban renewal experts, and development firms warning that many cities and towns need every tool at their disposal to help foster prosperity in the face of chronic economic decline. To these advocates, New London is a prime example of a small city with high unemployment, a stagnant tax base, and no large tracts of vacant land to support a major development project. Without the option of using eminent domain, the city's economic prospects would be bleak, they say.

"We won. We would like to move the project forward," says New London City Manager Richard Brown. "We are champing at the bit to get going."

There is nothing new about the constitutional issue at the center of the case. The Supreme Court has long recognized that there is no bar to government takings that may provide both public and private benefits.

But Kelo v. New London was different because of the players involved. The high court's two prior legal precedents involved monopolistic landowners in Hawaii and a department store owner in Washington, D.C. In contrast, Susette Kelo is a homeowner, like most US citizens. When the government took action against her, many Americans could imagine the government taking similar action against them. Kelo's pink cottage in Fort Trumbull has become an icon, Mr. Sawyer says, as recognizable to some as the Liberty Bell.

"It is the house that represents property rights in the United States," he says. "Why would you ever tear that down?"

Sawyer and others say they aren't sure what will happen next. City officials say the development project is still economically viable. All they need is a green light from the mediator and the state.

The city's redevelopment agency has spent much of its $70 million budget preparing a large portion of the 90-acre riverfront site for the planned hotel, office, and condo project. Land has been graded, roads built, and utilities installed. But major construction has not yet begun.

Some analysts suggest that the national backlash following the Supreme Court decision has made it even more difficult to find companies willing to move in. What firm wants to locate to a piece of property that will long be associated with the taking of people's homes? these analysts ask.

Nonetheless, the city's planning board has approved the hotel portion of the project, and there are talks under way for the Coast Guard to move its research and development center to a vacant office building on the site. The building is all that remains of the US Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which was shut down in 1996.

When that center closed, the federal government agreed to turn over the 32 acres of property to the city. Rather than focus on that tract alone, the city expanded its redevelopment plan by 58 acres, including the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

The homeowners say they aren't opposed to redevelopment. But they don't see why the renewal project has to include the demolition of their homes.

It is difficult to overestimate the level of animosity between New London development officials and the homeowners. After enduring years of attempts to force them out, residents say the toughest test so far has been losing at the Supreme Court.

"It took a while to get a handle on it," says Matt Dery, whose family has lived on the same corner in Fort Trumbull for 100 years. But Mr. Dery says his discussion with the mediator has left him hopeful. "Things have a way of working themselves out. Maybe there is a higher power at work here - I'm sure there is," he says.

Dery's neighbor, Byron Athenian, is just taking it day by day. "It is kind of a strange way to live," says Mr. Athenian, who has resided for 10 years in the house with gray shingles owned by his mother. This past fall, a few months after the Supreme Court ruling, he received an eviction notice. "When I first got it, it was like 'Wow, they only gave me 30 days to leave,' " he says.

The city's redevelopment agency sent notices to all tenants living in rented properties in Fort Trumbull. The move got the attention of Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who instructed the city to withdraw the notices. Since then, the feud has been in hiatus pending the work of the mediator.

But that hasn't stopped people from worrying about what might happen next.

"I think there could be civil disobedience if they moved in there with a wrecking ball," says Susan Munger, a member of the Coalition to Save the Fort Trumbull Neighborhood. "There has to be another way to resolve it that is satisfactory to the homeowners. Some of them don't have any intention of leaving."

As for a compromise, City Manager Brown isn't making any predictions. But he says New London badly needs a boost.

"The forecast for economic assistance from the state of Connecticut to its urban areas is not any better for the upcoming year than it was for the past couple," he says. "We are going to be left on our own to develop new sources of revenue, so we need the project to move forward."

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