Conn. communities dispute Kelo decision

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Public outcry following a recent Supreme Court ruling and a meeting today at the Connecticut General Assembly may result in a backlash that could curb New Haven’s power to take private property for public use.

The Connecticut House Judiciary Committee will meet today to consider two bills which would limit municipal governments’ power of eminent domain. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has put the Elm City in a precarious position with his downtown redevelopment master plan, which pivots on a crucial land transfer that may necessitate invoking eminent domain.

The Supreme Court case, Kelo v. New London, theoretically expanded the scope of the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which allows governments to take property from adequately compensated owners and use it for the public works such as government buildings and infrastructure. The recent public spotlight on eminent may spur state governments into action with the net result of a more constricted view of its province, School of Management professor Douglas Rae said.

Amicus briefs filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Association of Retired Persons said the ruling could result in cities taking away property mainly from the poor and elderly, who are not as aware of their legal rights and contribute less to the city tax base.

But eminent domain is a key weapon to eliminate blight and combat slum lords may wind up being removed from their arsenal, said Christopher Wood, government relations committee chair of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association.

John Williams, a New Haven lawyer who represented homeowners in the Hill district in an eminent domain suit three years ago, said it is not the Kelo ruling itself, but the additional attention the case brings to the policy that will affect New Haven. New Haven generally invokes eminent domain for public school projects that are not affected by Kelo. Fifty percent of New Haven school construction during the past decade has used eminent domain to acquire property for educational sites.

“Everyone’s in favor of schools,” Williams said. “So you go into a densely populated neighborhood, say you need ‘x’ acres for vast areas of parking and, it’s really too bad, but you’re going to have to displace 300 people.”

Sue Weisselberg, head of construction for the Board of Education, said companies will often force the city to trigger its eminent domain laws in order to allow courts to set a price for land. Weisselberg said the school renovation efforts that have spurred most of the property takings is nearing completion, with only one or two more new school sites planned, none of which would involve controversial property acquisitions.

“We have always sought community input and have been really careful about the impact of our construction projects,” Weisselberg said.

But in the Hill District, about 100 homeowners were displaced to make room for the John Daniels School and were compensated for significantly less than the taxed value of their homes, New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell said. Wary of the judicial system, the property owners did not get involved in litigation until late in the process, Williams said, which resulted in their case’s dismissal.

One of the city’s latest eminent domain projects concerns a property on Sherman Avenue. The city’s legislature agreed to allow the use of eminent domain last year to construct a non-profit childcare center on the site after negotiations with a former owner broke down.

Property co-owner Daniel Lebensohn, whose firm Sherman Gardens LLC acquired the property this year and has invested $100,000 in renovating it, said he does not know why the city condemned his property.

“Last time I checked, we were in the United States of America, and I’m a private landowner,” he said. “Unless I go outside the bounds of law, I’m entitled to do what I want with my property.”

But Shah said in an area so blighted that it achieved Neighborhood Revitalization Zone status from the state, that’s not exactly the case.

“We have no other options,” Shah said.

Stymied by Governor M. Jodi Rell in their attempt to create a special session to consider the issue of eminent domain, Republican legislators said they plan to push eminent domain onto the agenda during a special meeting for campaign finance form scheduled for October 11.

But Farwell said she is skeptical the meeting will result in greater protection for homeowners in New Haven and throughout Connecticut.

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