HARTFORD, Conn. – The state at the center of a national property rights battle moved Saturday night to limit the use of eminent domain, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that homes can be taken for private development projects.
Unlike other states, however, the Connecticut measure does not expressly ban using eminent domain for economic development. Instead, it prohibits property from being taken solely to boost property taxes.
"It does not protect the American dream of home ownership," said Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold. "Government confiscation of the family home goes against everything America stands for. It strikes at the core of our liberty."
Despite the 132-7 vote Saturday in the state House of Representatives, many lawmakers complained the bill would not have stopped the taking of Susette Kelo's famous pink cottage in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London.
Kelo was the main plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, in which justices ruled 5-4 in June 2005 in favor of the city of New London.
An amendment to prevent the taking of owner-occupied dwellings for economic development purposes narrowly failed on a 67-72 vote Saturday night.
The bill, which the Senate approved 33-3 on Thursday, now moves to the desk of Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. She is expected to sign it because much of the legislation was recommended by her office, lawmakers said.
"I think at the end of the day it will ensure that property, especially homeowners', will not be unnecessarily threatened by this extraordinary power," said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Saturday's vote comes after the majority of state legislatures nationwide reacted to the controversial high court ruling by trying to set limits on the taking of private property.
Thirty-eight states have enacted legislation or passed ballot measures that place some limits or qualifications on when eminent domain can be used, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Four of those states — North Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming — passed legislation this year.
Connecticut lawmakers have struggled with the issue for years, and were urged by the New London homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to change state law even before the 2005 high court decision.
Michael Cristofaro, whose family home was among those taken by eminent domain, said he believes legislators have been reluctant over the years to restrict property takings because eminent domain is being considered in several economic development projects under way across the state.
"They want this awesome power," said Cristofaro, who watched the House debate Saturday night on television with his wife.
Cristofaro said he was glad state lawmakers were finally debating an eminent domain bill on the House floor, but he believes it does not do enough to protect homeowners.
"There's nothing in here. No one's rights are saved yet," he said. "Our right to own property is not going to really be protected by 100 percent. It's really 20 percent, if you want me to give you a percentage."
Besides prohibiting the taking of property for projects to increase local tax revenues, the bill requires a public hearing and certain findings before taking a property. It also requires the municipal legislative body to approve takings by a two-thirds vote, and creates a 10-year deadline for completing a taking.
It also allows the homeowners to appeal in state court; gives former owners the right of first refusal to buy back property if projects are not fulfilled; and requires homeowners be compensated for 125 percent of the average value of two independent property appraisals.
Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, voted against the bill and said he doesn't believe changes to the existing eminent domain laws are needed.
"Every court, from the trial court to the Connecticut Supreme Court and the U.S Supreme Court, found that the city did it right and that Connecticut's law is constitutional," Hewett said, reminding other lawmakers that they approved more than $85 million for the Fort Trumbull redevelopment project — of which $10 million was used to acquire property.
"When you take this ability from a municipality to take properties by eminent domain, I think you're stifling a city," he said.