Once upon a time in the blue-collar era of lunch pails and time clocks, the people of Port Chester could smell the sweet aroma of peppermint that wafted from the Life Savers plant on North Main Street.
No longer, of course. The old candy factory was the last of the village's great manufacturers, and after it was closed in 1984 somebody converted the building into condominiums. With the factory's passing went about 650 jobs and that great smell of peppermint.
Needless to say, the nut-and-bolt foundries, forges and assembly lines will never return. Like the buffalo, they're gone for good. And so for at least two decades, Port Chester hasn't sought to make a comeback in the sense of returning to its industrial past, but has struggled to reinvent itself through the mass demolition and dislocation of urban renewal and the importation of outsize retail stores with national brands.
To meet this end, the village signed a Faustian deal with a developer, whose slick lawyers drafted the standard contract in invisible ink which said, in effect, "I will bring you a Costco, a Stop & Shop supermarket and movie theaters and more, but I will only do it my way.
"I will intimidate and bully. I will play hardball with your merchants, restaurateurs and small landlords. I will confuse and frighten your poorest citizens, who speak little or no English and work two jobs to pay the rent. And in the interest of private profit, I will seize 27 acres of downtown property through the process of eminent domain, which means that I will turn every legal trick and pulverize every ethic to wring the cheapest deal out of those who have no recourse but to cave in, take what they can and get out of town. I may be a destroyer of dreams, but I also will be the creator of new ratables, low-paying jobs and billable hours."
Sadly, these days a different kind of odor hovers over the village — it's the stench of corruption and greed.
"My story is so strange," village resident Bart Didden wrote in a letter to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, "that everyone who hears it agrees that I've been robbed."
The congressional committee recently convened to hear testimony about eminent domain abuse, and Didden wanted his experience "as a victim of government policies and laws" to be put into the official record.
"I am talking about eminent domain," he wrote, "and takings that are planned in backroom negotiations and sweetheart deals made between developers and elected government officials so hungry for renewal development that would do and say anything, including violating my civil rights and the natural laws of our society."
Didden, who is married and has two children, has lived in Port Chester for 45 years. Since 1982, he has been president of U.S.A. Central Station Alarm Corp., a firm that employs 60 people.
In 1993, he and his business partner, Domenick Bologna, purchased for $300,000 about 35,000 square feet of property in the Port Chester downtown urban renewal area with an eye toward helping the village "come back to what it once was." (A couple of years ago, the town of Rye of which Port Chester is a part, valued the property at $564,000.)
Even though he had plans to maximize the use of his property by selling it to CVS Corp., which wants to build a store on the site, Didden discovered that he had fallen victim to a ruthless application of New York's eminent domain law. He found that he had no real right to challenge the seizure of his property by the village and its "preferred developer," G&S of Old Bethpage, Long Island.
Didden went ahead and signed a deal with CVS and got planning commission approval to go ahead with the project. At that point, he claims, G&S came to him with an offer: He could keep his property if he paid them $800,000 or let them share in it on a 50-50 basis.
Didden told them to get lost.
"That's extortion," he said in his letter to Congress and repeated to me in a phone interview yesterday.
Last year, the village offered Didden $250,000 for his property — and he rejected the offer for the insult that it was.
The village's lawyers said, "Well, tell it to a judge." But the judges in this county have shown they are not on the side of the small property owners.
Eminent domain meant taking property to build bridges, highways and other things for the greater "public good." The modern-day interpretation of eminent domain says that property can be transferred into private hands now, and the new public good is the supposed windfall of greater sales and property taxes.
Didden sees no logic in this. He pays his ever-rising property taxes like anyone else and he doesn't get a break on the sales tax for construction materials.
But he points out that as the preferred developer, G&S does get substantial tax breaks because the village's scheme is to lease the property back to them for 20 years under a fixed rate. So who's getting the benefit here?
But here's the best part, according to Didden. Guess what the preferred developer wants to put on Didden's property, where CVS wants to build.
You can't make this stuff up.
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