Bills may limit city projects

Spurred by the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows governments to transfer property between private entities in the name of urban renewal, new statewide legislation may jeopardize New Haven’s power of eminent domain, a key component of the city’s economic and educational development program.

Beginning next week, a special state legislative session will consider various bills to limit cities’ abilities to appropriate private property for the greater public good, a power known as eminent domain, Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said at a public hearing of about 25 activists and New Haven residents last night.

The latest crop of proposals cover a broader range of eminent domain statutes and particularly concern New Haven. At one extreme, a bill proposed by House Minority Leader Robert Ward calls for a complete moratorium on eminent domain, while other bills under consideration would attempt to consolidate and clarify the 80-odd statutes governing the use of eminent domain. Though Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has earned a reputation as one of the most takings-friendly mayors in the state, New Haven’s use of eminent domain has primarily been limited to school and transportation-related takings. These were not covered by the Supreme Court ruling Kelo v. New London, Urban Design League president Anstress Farwell said.

Specifically, bills about eminent domain in the Planning and Development and Judiciary Committees include measures to more narrowly define economic blight — one of the criteria for invoking eminent domain — to pay a premium beyond the value of their property to displaced homeowners and to impose stricter standards for taking owner-occupied residential properties. Bills that pass either committee will be voted on during the legislature’s next regularly scheduled session in February.

In New Haven, eminent domain-related developments such as the construction of the John Daniel’s School, which displaced residents of the Hill neighborhood, and the impending downtown redevelopment project, school construction project on Crown Street and childcare center on Sherman Avenue have angered many citizens. New Haven resident John Aotis-Yopp EPH ’81 called New Haven’s development record with regards to eminent domain “inhumane.”

“The people of the Hill neighborhood were taken advantage of by our body politic,” he said. “New Haven’s citizens are mistrustful of the city authorities because they have been treated as expendable.”

But Looney said it is not the laws themselves but the way in which they are implemented on a city-by-city basis that ultimately govern the legitimacy of municipal takings.

“Clearly, nobody wants property holding destabilized to the point where anyone with a $200,000 house needs to worry that someone will come along and put a $500,000 house on that lot so that taxes double,” Looney said. “But there is a larger issue of local government bodies’ responsibilities, and that will depend on the amount of confidence people have in their local administration.”

But several individuals within the city planning community said they think the recent spate of legislative initiatives is rash.

“This is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Christopher Wood, government relations committee chair of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association. “Frankly, I think there was a lot of effort to just get things into the hopper, so I don’t know how much thought went into these proposals.”

John Williams, a lawyer who represented residents of the Hill neighborhood in an eminent-domain lawsuit against the city, said economic development through eminent domain is inextricably linked with the “money trail” from private developers to City Hall.

“One is put in mind of the old line from 19th century that the railroads made certain we had the best legislatures money can buy,” he said.

Connecticut has historically been unwilling to limit municipalities’ power, ranked by the Institute of Justice as the state that has done the least to legislate the power of eminent domain. David Cameron, the director of undergraduate studies for Yale’s political science department, said the Kelo ruling contains an “implicit slap on the wrist” for the state, which he said should have legislated the issue of eminent domain beyond the “baseline” provided by the Fifth Amendment.

Cameron said the state’s political climate has made the issue of eminent domain particularly charged. Cameron said most Democratic lawmakers’ political and economic ties prevent them from proposing stronger legislation concerning eminent domain, and financially strapped municipalities are forced to chase state-level funding, which is dished out most easily for school construction and economic development projects.

“The faucet is there and it’s turned wide open,” Cameron said. “Cities will come up with ingenious devices to follow the money.”

In the Kelo case, the Supreme Court said the city of New London, which is currently facing economic difficulties, could transfer property from one private owner — in this case, the residents of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood — to another, research corporation Pfizer, as long as doing so would be of economic benefit to the entire city. The consensus take on the ruling is that it grants cities significantly wider latitude with the takings clause of the Constitution, previously reserved for such indisputably public purposes as new schools, highways and firehouses.

Eminent domain takings for economic development are banned in 28 states, 11 of which passed injunctions against such takings in the months following Kelo.

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