More than eight years after homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Conn., were abandoned by the U.S. Supreme Court – in the historic and controversial “Kelo decision” – and watched as their modest homes on small residential lots were razed, a plan may finally be in the works to redevelop the area.
Ironically, tiny houses on micro-lots and a parking garage for a nearby office building is the recommendation of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio.
The widely criticized 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2005 employed a broad definition of “public use” that includes the government taking the property of citizens to turn over to private developers.
The New London Development Corp. wanted to clear the site to attract large corporate development and expand the city’s tax base. The high court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London opened the door for Pfizer to expand in New London, but the pharmaceutical giant left town in 2010 along with 1,000 jobs.
The New London newspaper The Day reported Fort Trumbull has seen no new construction since bulldozers flattened the neighborhood and said the mayor’s new vision lacks “any clear path to achieve it.”
In a story near the eighth anniversary of the decision, the Day quoted Michael Cristofaro, whose family lived in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for generations.
“These days, when he returns to Fort Trumbull, the 70-plus acre peninsula on the Thames River that was leveled by the city for redevelopment, he’s more sad than angry,” the paper reported.
“We weren’t good enough?” Cristofaro asked. “We wanted to be part of it. That’s what they didn’t understand. It wasn’t about money. It was about living here. This was our home.”
The property grab began while a hotel, conference center, athletic center, office park and other projects were planned next to a $300 million Pfizer office building.
Pfizer has left and nothing else has happened.
A plan for 103 condominium rental units is stalled over a contract dispute.
The mayor calls the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision an “eminent domain debacle” and suggests now that his plan could at least be a de facto overturning of the Kelo decision.
Finizio said in an interview with the editorial board of The Day that the land, which has become a home to feral cats, could be used for a parking garage that would serve Electric Boat company offices nearby. It could have solar panels for power, landscaping and first-floor shops, he said.
Nearby parcels, he said, could be used for “tiny house neighborhoods.”
“Small, environmentally self-sustaining homes that are low up-keep, energy self-sufficient, etc. And a lot of cities that are trying to green themselves have looked at this kind of development. Where you were going to do big, expensive multimillion dollar Village on the Thames condos, you could have a real village on the Thames of micro lots,” he said.
Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University School of Law, reacted to the mayor’s proposal.
“Mayor Finizio’s idea could well fit the narrower definition of ‘public use’ advocated by critics of the Kelo decision, which requires the condemned property to be transferred to government ownership or to a public utility or common carrier that is legally required to allow the public to use the property. But it’s not clear whether the proposal will actually work,” Somin wrote at the Volokh Conspiracy blog.
Somin, whose research focuses on constitutional and property law, noted several previous proposed uses for the condemned property have failed to pan out.
“It is hard to say whether Mayor Finizio’s idea will prove any more viable. Even if it does, the condemned land will have remained empty for a decade or more by the time the new development project is completed,” he said.
“This ensures that, even from a strictly economic point of view, the Kelo condemnations will end up destroying far more value for the city of New London than they are likely to create. Had the city simply left the previous property owners alone, they would have continued to pay property taxes on their homes and rental properties, and otherwise contribute to the local economy. In addition, [the] city and state would have saved millions of dollars in various expenses associated with the takings.”
He continued: “However, it would be wrong to say that no one at all has benefited from the Kelo takings. So long as the condemned land remains unused, it can continue to serve as a home for feral cats.”
The Day pointed out the broader impact of the Kelo decision. Since then, 80 percent of the states have adopted laws limiting the way eminent domain is used. In Connecticut, a prohibition on property being taken to boost property taxes was adopted in 2007.