New London, Conn. A bumper sticker caught my eye as I crossed a parking lot on my way to this New England town's City Hall. It read, "Welcome to New London. Your home is ours."
Thanks to a Pyrrhic victory before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, the city of New London has framed itself - perhaps for all time - as the nation's icon for abuse of the government's power of eminent domain.
Giving up an eight-year fight to retain the four New London homes his family has owned dating back to 1901, Matt Dery accepted terms for the surrender of the properties just before the city's May 31 deadline. It was time, he decided; Dery's mother, who was born in one of the houses in 1918, died at 88 in the same room in March.
"We fought the eminent domain action because it was wrong then, it's wrong now, and it will ever be thus," Dery told me. "We didn't do anything wrong - we just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, when someone wanted our property.
"They can have it," he said bitterly. "I hope they choke on it."
In a bid to reinvigorate a stagnant local economy and a moribund tax base, New London in 1998 adopted a state-funded redevelopment plan for 90 acres in Fort Trumbull, a downtown tract which juts into the Thames River. The six-square-mile city of 25,000 had few alternatives, current Mayor Elizabeth Sabilia told me. "There is no available land in the city of New London for commercial development," she said.
The plan called for the acquisition of 115 homes and businesses, many dating back to the turn of the 20th century, to make room for a resort hotel and conference center, condominiums and offices. Not coincidentally, the land was adjacent to a new $300 million Pfizer Corp. research facility.
Seven property owners sued. Though distressed, Fort Trumbull was by no definition "blighted," boasting a rich, charming history. The owners lost by one-vote margins in both the Connecticut and U.S. Supreme Courts, the latter majority relying on precedent to conclude that condemnations for private development were permissible if there is a "public benefit" - such as an enhanced tax base or jobs growth.
The majority ruling was not illogical: Many cities have truly blighted districts for which a well-designed government-initiated private redevelopment plan is the best strategy.
But eminent domain also is a powerful and tempting tool for those lusting to profit from the cheap acquisition of valuable land. Too often, such people have a firm grasp on the lapels of government officials, who might be naive, misguided or themselves corrupt. The ruling in Kelo v. City of New London offered no protection to property owners standing in the path of an unjust or ill-conceived eminent domain wrecking ball and being told, at the muzzle of a government gun, "Sell now, or else."
"Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded," former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in a passionate dissent to the 2005 ruling. "Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."
It's a matter of judgment whether the state's and city's motivations for targeting Fort Trumbull for redevelopment were sound, but the execution of the plan was atrocious. Republican then-Gov. John G. Rowland - who later went to prison on unrelated graft charges - put $73 million in state funds in the hands of a private non-profit agency, the New London Development Corp., rather than the Democrat-controlled City Council. Granted eminent domain power by the city, the NLDC wielded it like a broadax.
"They treated us with no respect or dignity in this thing," said Fort Trumbull homeowner Michael Cristofaro.
"There were a lot of hurtful things said about (the homeowners) early on," Sabilia admitted. "You don't call the places where people bring their babies home from the hospital or where they get married a 'slum' or a 'pit.' You just don't do that."
In late May, the New London City Council voted to proceed with the evictions of Cristofaro and lead plaintiff Susette Kelo - even though it could be years before that land is actually needed.
It is up to the state legislatures to reform eminent domain laws, and up to voters to make them. Colorado, for one, recently prohibited government seizures of land for private economic development except to address clearly blighted conditions. It's a start. An individual's home should be his castle, not some condominium developer's next meal.