Published February 21, 2005
NEW LONDON, Conn. – Fifteen houses are all that remain of Fort Trumbull, a once vibrant immigrant neighborhood flattened into expanses of rutted grass and gravel.
The homes stand in defiance of New London's plan to pave the way for a riverfront hotel and convention center, offices and upscale condominiums.
Refusing the city's efforts to get them to leave, seven families are going before the U.S. Supreme Court (search) on Tuesday, arguing that the city has no right to take their private property solely for economic development. The rebellious homeowners include an elderly Italian immigrant, a mechanic and a former deli owner.
"It's a case of the rich eating the poor," said Matthew Dery, who lives in one of four houses on a compound his family has owned since 1901. "Sometimes the poor are difficult to digest."
Leading the charge is Susette Kelo, a 47-year-old nurse who bought her home in 1997.
"They have over 90 acres now," Kelo said. "It's more than enough room to build on. We never said they can't build. We just said 'We want to stay.'"
But Kelo's apricot-colored house, with a decorative outhouse in the front yard and wind chimes made of silverware, doesn't fit in the city's development plans.
"They just would not be compatible with all the other uses," said Edward O'Connell, an attorney representing the New London Development Corp., (search) the quasi-public agency behind the redevelopment effort.
Whether building highways or public offices, laying railroad tracks or eliminating blight, governments have long relied on eminent domain laws to allow them to take private property.
The Fifth Amendment allows governments to take private property for "public use."
New York used eminent domain (search) to improve Times Square, expand the New York Stock Exchange and build the World Trade Center. Baltimore replaced a downtrodden waterfront with a bustling harbor development.
But Fort Trumbull is not besieged by blight, poverty or crime and New London is not building a highway or government building, and the residents' appeal asks if "public use" allows governments to seize unblighted taxpayer property solely to encourage private development.
The Supreme Court has given governments broad power to take private property through eminent domain, provided the owner is given "just compensation." But in recent years many cities and towns have been accused of abusing their authority.
New London officials say the taxes generated by redeveloping Fort Trumbull ultimately will benefit the public, and the state Supreme Court ruled that was enough to justify the condemnation.
City officials have worked to remake the area since 1996, when the Naval Undersea Warfare Center left town with its 1,400 jobs. When pharmaceutical giant Pfizer opened a $350 million research center nearby that year, city officials saw an opportunity to create high-end housing, retail shops, a business park and a hotel.
All that was standing in the way were 115 homes.
Most owners accepted the city's buyout offers. Those who remain fall into two categories — people who simply won't leave and people who feel they're being cheated out of the fair value of their homes.
"The sentimental holdouts are the more difficult to deal with," O'Connell said. "No matter what you offer, they won't consider that sufficient or appropriate. They're just not motivated by the logic of the marketplace."
Kelo says it's not about the money for her. She was raised nearby, and when her children moved out she wanted a house by the water. Her small but cozy house has a front porch with a a great view of the Thames River.
Dery is upset that the city wants to take his property before putting a developer under contract and deciding exactly what will replace his neighborhood.
"What they're saying," Dery said, "is that anything that we put there will be better than you."