NEARLY NINE years have elapsed since the US Supreme Court, in one of its most notorious rulings, decided that seven homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Conn., had no property rights which City Hall was bound to respect. Today Fort Trumbull is a wasteland, as a detailed new report confirms.
The court's 2005 holding inKelo v. City of New Londongave local officials a green light to seize and demolish private homes through eminent domain, then turn the land over to developers itching to build something more lucrative. In Fort Trumbull, those private homeowners included people such as Susette Kelo, a local nurse who bought her little Victorian cottage on the Thames River because she loved its waterfront view; Wilhelmina Dery, who was born in her house on Walbach Street in 1918 and had been living there all her life; and Pasquale and Margherita Cristofaro, whose home on Goshen Street was the second New London property they lost to eminent domain, the first having been taken 30 years earlier because the city intended to construct a seawall. (The seawall was never built.)
Their homes, like those of their neighbors, were targeted at the urging of Pfizer, Inc. The pharmaceutical giant was building a major research facility nearby and wanted city officials to pave the way for a "world-class redevelopment" that would appeal to the business leaders, scientists, and other professionals the new headquarters was expected to attract. "Pfizer wants a nice place to operate," a supercilious executive said in 2001. "We don't want to be surrounded by tenements."
The Fifth Amendment's "Takings Clause" authorizes eminent-domain takings, but only when property is needed "for public use" — for example, to build a post office, widen a road, or create a reservoir. Fort Trumbull's homeowners argued all the way up to the Supreme Court that their homes weren't being seized for "public use" but for private use. Under the Constitution, they insisted, the city had no right to forcibly transfer their property to a private developer in the hope that new development would yield higher tax revenues or new jobs.