10/12/2005

Lawmakers asked to curb eminent domain: The Stamford (CT) Advocate, 10/7/05

By Tobin A Coleman

Citizens and state and municipal officials told [Connecticut] lawmakers yesterday that the power of government to take private property for economic development should be stopped or severely limited.

"The General Assembly must send a strong message to municipalities that tearing down neighborhoods to replace them with office buildings or a big box retailer must stop," said Michael Cristofaro of New London, a plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that has led to 21 states passing or considering laws to limit the power of eminent domain.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee heard from about 30 people at a public hearing that lasted about 6 hours. Some had personal stories of what they labeled eminent domain abuse in cities and towns including Derby, Bloomfield and Ridgefield.

Others expressed outrage at the court decision and asked for reforms as a result of the June court ruling that said the families in the Fort Trumbull section of New London must turn over their single-family homes to a private developer who wants to build a hotel and office complex.

At the core of most of the five proposed bills that were the subject of the hearing was either a complete prohibition or new restraints on state and municipal power to seize private property for economic development and turn it over to a private entity.

The Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could use such a practice if the purpose was to spur economic growth in order to raise new tax revenue. But the court invited state legislatures to regulate or ban the practice.

Connecticut, one of the few states that directly allows taking of private property under such circumstances, is considering changes not only to that practice but even in cases where blighted areas are under consideration for revitalization, a practice known as urban renewal.

Stamford and Norwalk redevelopment officials testified they do not oppose reforms but asked that the basic tools of eminent domain — now being employed in a downtown Stamford project and in Norwalk's Reed-Putnam development — remain.

Tim Sheehan, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, told the panel that holdouts standing in the way of urban renewal projects are the reason cities and towns should be able to keep eminent domain powers as a last resort.

Sheehan defined a holdout to the committee as, "that landowner who refuses to sell an essential piece of property for a realistic market . . . value and thereby thwarts an important public economic development improvement project."

Sheehan's agency has been in court for years with Maritime Motors, a car dealership on West Avenue in Norwalk, over the agency's condemnation of the dealership to make way for the Reed-Putnam mutliuse project.

Michael Freimuth, Stamford's director of economic development, spent more than 30 minutes testifying and answering questions. Freimuth was representing the Connecticut Economic Development Association.

Freimuth said the state should abandon its own rules and adopt federal rules for compensating homeowners and business owners whose properties are taken by eminent domain.

"Federal rules are more flexible, more liberal and more accommodating of fair compensation, just compensation," Freimuth said.

Judiciary Committee co-chairman Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, questioned several witnesses about their understanding of public use of a condemned property, which most agreed should still be permissible under the law, and a private use.

Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock, who represented the Fort Trumbull homeowners argued that the state should outlaw the taking of property from one private owner to give to another. The marketplace can take care of the need for economic growth, and developers can pay private owners enough money to buy their parcels without the threat of eminent domain hanging over their heads, he said. Otherwise, there are creative ways to design projects to accommodate the holdouts, Bullock said.

"Most situations that I'm aware of, when people refuse to sell, development still moves forward around them," Bullock said.

Bullock and others also argued that the state's laws allowing eminent domain to be used for blight removal should be tightly written so that they are not used as a back door to allow private developers to take properties that aren't deteriorated.

"I'm concerned that we define blight in a way that won't be struck down by the courts as vague," said state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said the committee and legislative leaders will likely take the best elements of the five competing proposals and hammer out a compromise to further protect home and business owners from having their property taken for commercial use.

House Minority Leader Robert Ward, R-North Branford, has proposed one bill that would completely outlaw that use of eminent domain. Ward wants an immediate moratorium on the takings until a new law is passed, or, alternately, he wants the state statute that allows such takings repealed.

"Taking private properties and turning it over for essentially private use, our statute 132 allows that and I think this is clearly wrong," Ward said. "Repealing Chapter 132 is simple and easy to do and a simple process to accomplish."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has asked cities and towns to hold off on using eminent domain until the Legislature can work out a deal. So far they have complied. A bill could get a vote as early as this month as the Legislature is set to go into special session on Tuesday.


Stamford Advocate: www.stamfordadvocate.com