WEARE, N.H. – Residents on Saturday overturned a proposal to evict U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter from his farmhouse and build an inn, instead substituting a call for the Legislature to strengthen state law on eminent domain.
A group of residents had petitioned to get the matter on the town's March ballot, asking voters to take the justice's Weare home by eminent domain for the "Lost Liberty Hotel." The effort grew out of anger at Souter's support for last year's Supreme Court decision that allowed New London, Conn., to take several waterfront homes for a private developer.
Saturday's meeting gave residents the chance to voice their opinions and amend the proposal, one of about 50 on the ballot.
"This is a game," said Walter Bohlin, who proposed adding the word "not" throughout the proposal to take Souter's eight acres, including his more than 200-year-old farmhouse. "It was a piece of property targeted for revenge."
Bohlin added that Souter "is one of ours. Why would we take something from one of ours? This is not the appropriate way."
Souter, who grew up in Weare, has not commented on the matter and was not at the meeting.
The proposal asked whether the central New Hampshire town of 8,500 should take Souter's home for development as an inn; whether to set up a trust fund to accept donations for legal expenses; and whether to set up a second trust fund to accept donations to compensate Souter for taking his land.
By secret ballot, residents voted 94 to 59 in favor of Bohlin's addition. Later, by a voice vote, they approved substituting a request that town officials not seize Souter's home by eminent domain; and urging Gov. John Lynch and the Legislature take action to make sure property can't be taken through eminent domain and handed over to private developers for economic development purposes.
The Legislature is considering several proposals to limit government's ability to use eminent domain to take land.
Supporters of the eviction proposal were disappointed. "We lost today, not because there isn't support in this town, but because the turnout wasn't here," said Joshua Solomon, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Natural Rights, organized in opposition to the Supreme Court decision. "It's not exactly the message we intended to have."
Solomon had said the group was formed because the Supreme Court has given courts and legislatures "permission to chip away at our freedoms." He pointed to property battles going on in other states, saying Weare could take the lead on the issue.
"What we're doing is a small part of the greater uprising," he said. "What you're doing in Weare is keeping the bulldozers from firing up in New London, Connecticut."
The town's five-member board of selectmen did not endorse the proposal. "If we'd known you were coming, we would've built a hotel," Chairwoman Laura Buono joked to out-of-staters at the meeting.
Rep. Charles Bass also weighed in on the issue in a letter to one of the selectmen.
"While we must safeguard the private property rights of our citizens and ensure that the power of eminent domain is not abused, it is important to recognize that eminent domain can at times be an essential tool to respond to pressing public interests. However, it is one that should not be used for private benefit or political grandstanding."
Prior to the vote, the leader of the campaign to evict Souter said he believed the town supported it. Logan Darrow Clements of Los Angeles, who was not at Saturday's meeting, said supporters just wanted to stop eminent domain abuse.
"It's a shame they took away the chance for Weare voters to vote on it," he said. "I personally think it seems to violate the First Amendment. If you sign a petition and someone changes what you sign, that doesn't seem ethical to me."
Clements said the fight against eminent domain isn't over. "This is just one setback," he said.
Clements and other supporters traveled to Weare last month to gather residents' signatures supporting the proposal. He said he had close to 200. Supporters also distributed copies of the Supreme Court's decision, Kelo vs. City of New London, to residents.
The court said New London could seize homeowners' property to develop a hotel, convention center, office space and condominiums next to Pfizer Inc.'s new research headquarters.
The city argued that tax revenues and new jobs from the development would benefit the public. The Pfizer complex was built, but seven homeowners challenged the rest of the development in court.