Tuesday, June 06, 2006

New London approves evictions in eminent domain dispute

This one issue will be my TOP priority when elected.

By Stephen Singer, Associated Press Writer | June 5, 2006

NEW LONDON, Conn. --City officials voted Monday night to begin eviction proceedings against residents who refuse to leave their riverfront homes, signaling the end may be near in an eminent domain dispute that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
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The City Council approved the action 5-2, authorizing the city attorney to take the necessary steps, including possible court action, to evict the remaining two families and obtain the properties. A lawyer for the families said they are considering continuing their battle with the city.

About 100 people packed the meeting room, a hallway and an adjacent room.

The small city has been trying for a decade to redevelop the once vibrant Fort Trumbull neighborhood along the Thames River. Seven homeowners challenged the city's plans to seize their properties and build a hotel, convention center and upscale condominiums, saying eminent domain can't be used to make way for private development.

But a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling last year upheld the city's right to take the homes. The court, however, said states were free to restrict eminent domain seizures, and many already have. A proposal to change Connecticut's law died in this year's state legislative session.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, all but two families have settled with the city and agreed to leave.

Michael Cristofaro, one of the Fort Trumbull holdouts, spoke out against the property seizures.

"Just give us back our deeds," Cristofaro said. "You are not being straight with us or the public. You are not listening to the general public."

Cristofaro singled out five of the seven council members who favor taking the property.

"You are a disgrace to the city, the state and the nation," he said.

One Fort Trumbull resident, William Von Winkle, agreed to a settlement with the city Monday, just minutes before the City Council meeting began, The Day of New London reported. The terms were not disclosed.

Scott Bullock, a lawyer for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice who represents the residents, said the homeowners can still fight the city. He said they'll be considering appeals to state government to ask that state funding for the development be pulled. He said they also may engage in civil disobedience.

"This is a civil rights struggle to save poor and working class people from eminent domain abuse," he said.

City Councilor Robert Perro supported the effort to remove the families. He said the issue has been through state agencies and three courts.

"This was a plan that was well thought out," he said. "The development of this peninsula needs to move forward."

But Charles Frink, one of the two councilors who opposed seizing the properties, criticized supporters, saying they should admit they made a mistake.

"I can't accept a possible reduction in taxes by having neighbors thrown out of their property," he said. "This is morally abhorrent to me. I refuse to profit from my neighbor's pain."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell had proposed letting the holdouts remain in their homes but giving the city the right of first refusal if the houses ever were sold.

New London Mayor Elizabeth Sabilia predicted before the meeting that Rell's proposal would not be approved.

"The balance of councilors are staying the course," said Sabilia, who also votes on the council.

The vote came five days after a deadline for settlements to be reached with the remaining property owners.

One local resident who spoke Monday night, Donald Harrington, was against Rell's plan.

"What right has she got to tell the city of New London what to do?" he asked.

The eviction process, which may include another court fight, could take a month to three months. But that's negligible in a land dispute that has been up and down the court system over several years.

"You know how some things take on a life of their own?" Sabilia said. "This thing is like a cat. It's taken on nine lives."

Bullock said he didn't think the city wants the publicity that will come with razing the homes.

"It would be a disaster, evicting Susette Kelo from that pink house that nearly everybody in the nation recognizes by now, when you've got a proposal from the governor on the table," he said.

Kelo, a 49-year-old nurse who bought her home in 1997, became the lead plaintiff in the court battle and has refused to sell, as has Cristofaro.

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