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Whose House Is It Anyway?

When a city's quest for renewal means the death of an old neighborhood.

Wilhelmina Dery has lived her entire 87 years in a blue sea captain's house near the banks of Connecticut's Thames River. From the ground floor, her family ran a grocery where the neighborhood's Italian women congregated Saturday mornings, buying freshly stuffed sausage and wedges of Parmesan cut from large wheels. Across the street, the river was thick with traffic: swordfish, tuna, and lobster fishing boats; Coast Guard ships; and, during Prohibition, the rum-running vessels that gave New London its reputation as a crossroads of the illegal liquor trade.

Wilhelmina met her husband, Charles, now 85, at a USO dance during World War II, just before he shipped out to the South Pacific with the Merchant Marine. Of their four kids, only the youngest, Matt, survives. He lives next door with his wife and teenage son in a three-story house with skylights and oak trim, converted from the brick-oven bakery where Wilhelmina's immigrant father once worked. Several times a week, Matt or a family member carries a heaping plate of homemade pasta across the driveway. Charles likes this balance of intimacy and privacy. "He has his space and I have mine, you know?"the older man says of his son. "I love him to death, but I realize that you've got to let him breathe a little."

The Derys' neighborhood, Fort Trumbull, has never been a tidy suburb. It butts up against a train yard, and until recently reeked from a nearby wastewater treatment plant. But it was close-knit nonetheless, a place of nighttime basketball games, Easter dinners, and huge funerals where the whole small community turned out. "Nobody locked their doors," says Matt, who is 48 and works as a sales manager at New London's daily newspaper."You just walked in and yelled. You'd get fed wherever you went."In 1976, Matt took over the family grocery, by then a sandwich shop where employees of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center came for grinders filled with chicken Parmesan and teriyaki rib eye. He eventually gave the store to his brother, who ran it until he died in a 1994 fire. (Another brother died accidentally as an adult, and a sister died in infancy.) When the Warfare Center closed in 1996, it spelled an end to the family business.

In the late 1990s, Fort Trumbull residents suddenly noticed real estate agents poking around their rutted streets. The neighbors suspected something was in the works, and in December 1999 the news hit: the city of New London planned to acquire all 90 acres of Fort Trumbull and turn the land over to private developers. Spurred by the imminent opening of Pfizer Global Research and Development's $300 million headquarters next door, the city envisioned a "waterfront urban village" of offices, luxury condominiums, and a four-star hotel with river views.

About 80 property owners, many of them elderly, voluntarily sold their homes when the city came knocking. The remaining seven, including the Derys, refused. In response, the city-chartered New London Development Corp. (NLDC) seized the remaining houses through a process called eminent domain, which allows governments to buy property from unwilling owners. The houses are currently occupied, but their future remains in legal limbo—at least until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Fort Trumbull's fate.

The court's decision, expected by the end of June, could set a sweeping precedent concerning the rights of governments to buy people's homes for private redevelopment. To property-rights advocates, a ruling in New London's favor could mean open season on older neighborhoods—and the older Americans who frequently inhabit them. According to Chip Mellor, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm representing the Fort Trumbull neighbors, the retirement plans and life savings of people 50 and older "can be shattered in an instant" when a government has the right to take their property and give it to another private party.

But some local officials have a different perspective. They say that a city has rights too—particularly the right to control its own destiny for the common good. Cities and towns have many tools to do this: zoning laws, billboard regulations, historic preservation rules, building codes. While eminent domain is a drastic tool, they say, it's sometimes necessary in places that are suffering from chronic unemployment, underfunded schools, and shrinking tax bases.

"For many communities to be sustainable, they need to redevelop," says Jeffrey Finkle, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based International Economic Development Council. Converting land to denser uses beefs up the tax base, which helps pay for the police department, fire department, roads, and social programs. When houses and businesses stand in the way of these efforts, Finkle says, cities need the power to obtain the properties. "Poor land-use judgments 40 years ago should not dictate the survivability of a city in 2010," he says.

The battle over Fort Trumbull is not a tale of villains looking for personal gain. "Really what is involved is conflicting dreams," wrote the Connecticut Superior Court in a 2002 decision. Fort Trumbull's residents dream of living peacefully in their own homes, the court said, and "any threat to that dream is understandably forcefully and emotionally opposed as it should be in a free society." On the other hand, the court wrote, New London's leaders have their own dream, "to provide an economic and social uplift for their city." However the U.S. Supreme Court rules, this much is clear: only one of those dreams can come true.

Traditionally, we associate eminent domain with road building, school construction, and other tax-funded projects. If the government wants to run a highway through your neighborhood, it can seize your home without your consent; this happens all the time. In exchange, the U.S. Constitution promises "just compensation" when your property is taken for "public use."

The controversy arises when your land is to be turned over to a for-profit business. What if a city decides that it needs a sports arena, a shopping mall, a handsome new downtown? What if a major employer wants to build a factory that will provide hundreds of jobs? Do these needs constitute public use? This is what the Supreme Court has been asked to determine.

The U.S. Constitution promises "just compensation" when your property is taken for "public use."

In the past half-century, the courts have ruled that under some circumstances—clearing slums or breaking up land monopolies—a government can indeed seize property and turn it over to private interests. But the issue is far from resolved. In 1981, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Detroit could condemn the working-class neighborhood of Poletown for a General Motors plant, in order to preserve jobs in the beleaguered city. In 2004, while reviewing another eminent domain case, the court decided to revisit the Poletown case—and, in a surprise move, overturned the earlier decision. By then, of course, it was too late for 4,200 Poletown residents, whose homes had long since been bulldozed for a plant that produced far fewer jobs than expected.

At the same time, some of the nation's most stellar urban-revitalization projects have also relied on private redevelopment. Baltimore's Harborplace, which turned crumbling docks and warehouses into a waterfront shopping and dining mecca, required the seizure of private property. So have stadiums throughout the United States.

While individual redevelopment projects have been controversial, the eminent domain issue itself attracted little national attention—until the Institute for Justice rallied to the defense of an Atlantic City, New Jersey, widow whose home was threatened by Donald Trump's plans to build limousine parking for his casino. (The institute prevailed in 1998.) In a hefty report published in April 2003, the institute identified 3,700 properties across the United States that were condemned for private use over a five-year period. Though there's no reliable historical data, some experts believe these takings have become considerably more commonplace. Jeffrey Finkle estimates they doubled during the 1990s.

What has definitely become more commonplace is criticism by legal activists who believe that when the Founding Fathers said "public use," they weren't referring to stadiums and shopping centers. "The Constitution has  a limitation. To say 'We have a great need; let's suspend the Constitution' is not a great argument," says Gideon Kanner, professor emeritus at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. When influential land developers convince governments to use eminent domain on their behalf, he adds, "it's a form of civic corruption. This is really raw power when people are kicked out of their homes."

Even supporters of eminent domain agree that it's sometimes misused. But focusing on the abuses, they say, misses the bigger issue: elected officials have the right and responsibility to shape the way their communities grow. If they neglect that responsibility, city centers will die while farmland morphs into miles of traffic-choked highways sprouting fast-food restaurants and big-box retailers.

Lost in this rhetoric is the human struggle that has repeated itself across the United States. One side fails to acknowledge the suffering of families like the Derys, who have lived in their neighborhoods for decades and can't bear the thought of relocating. The other side dismisses civic leaders, like New London's, who grapple daily with shrinking tax bases and underfunded schools, and who can't envision any solution that doesn't uproot people from their homes.

At its peak as a 19th-century whaling port, New London was a curious mixture of aristocratic mansions and rough-and-tumble establishments catering to sailors on shore leave. These days, New London has a split personality of a different kind. On the south end of town, elegant shingled homes sit on private beaches with 180-degree views of Long Island Sound. Downtown, though, antiques hops alternate with empty storefronts. Since 1960, the city has lost almost one quarter of its population, shrinking from 34,000 to 26,000.

"We have terrible economic woes," says Ed O'Connell, an attorney who represents the New London Development Corp. Unemployment is high. Tax revenues have been stagnant, forcing the city to cut back the police and fire departments and lay off literacy tutors.

Hemmed in by water and more affluent municipalities, New London has no place to grow. To expand its tax base, it must make better use of the six square miles that make up the city. Otherwise, says O'Connell, the city will continue its downward spiral and plunge deeper into poverty.

That's why, when Pfizer announced it would locate a global research facility on a trash-strewn peninsula next to Fort Trumbull—the largest in-state business expansion in Connecticut's history—the plan was viewed as a singular triumph. The new complex, where scientists would design and manage clinical drug trials, would employ more than 1,500 people. Pfizers pokesperson Liz Power insists that the drug firm's only preconditions for moving to New London were a cleanup of a waterfront park, odor reduction at the wastewater treatment plant, and citywide infrastructure improvements. Internal Pfizer documents, however, suggest the company's "expectation" for Fort Trumbull included upscale housing and a hotel and conference center.

Whatever the extent of Pfizer's demands, New London's leaders envisioned turning Fort Trumbull into an urban showpiece. Along with the townhomes and hotel, there would be office buildings, marinas, a river walk, and possibly even a Coast Guard museum. As many as 1,400 jobs could be created, the city predicted, along with $1.2 million in annual property tax revenues."This was a chance the city of New London would have once in its history," says O'Connell.

There was, however, the matter of evicting the neighborhood's existing residents.

If New London's dire straits lent its leaders a certain moral high ground, the city's actual tactics squandered any chance of winning Fort Trumbull's goodwill. From the start, the neighbors felt bullied into selling their homes. They claim that NLDC's agents phoned at night and visited during Sunday dinners, contracts in hand. "They started calling my parents at all hours of the day, saying, 'Listen, you need to sell this property. If you don't take what we're offering, we're going to take it [for less money] by eminent domain,' " says Mike Cristofaro, whose family had had another home seized in the 1970s to make room for a seawall that was never built. "To me, that's harassment."O'Connell, NLDC's attorney, says it's normal for real estate agents to conduct business at night and on weekends.

The Supreme Court could limit the government's power to buy private homes without their owners' consent.

NLDC began seizing title to holdout properties starting in 2000. Around the same time, demolition crews came into Fort Trumbull with excavators that looked like dinosaurs, leveling the houses the owners had sold to the city voluntarily. Amid the dusty cacophony, Byron Athenian, a retired body shop owner who helps care for his severely disabled granddaughter, found his house cut off from the street by barricades and a ditch. Now Athenian and the wheelchair-bound girl must enter the building through a side door at the end of a pothole-ridden path. "It's like living in a bunker," he says.

One clear day in November 2000, a brick wall from a house being demolished next door crashed into Matt Dery's yard, destroying the garage and all its contents. "It was like an airplane had struck my house," recalls Matt's wife, Suzanne. "The whole house shook." When Matt tried to rebuild the structure, the city denied him a permit.

The neighborhood grew tenser. Two months after the garage incident, police were summoned to a brick apartment building, where NLDC padlocked some of landlord William Von Winkle's tenants into their homes and ordered others into the street. O'Connell calls the evictions legitimate, explaining that Von Winkle had defied a city order to keep the apartments vacant. (NLDC later agreed to permit Fort Trumbull's landlords to rent on a month-to-month basis.)

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice wended its way through the courts. In March 2004, Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled in the city's favor, noting that the rebuilding of Fort Trumbull would create hundreds of jobs. While NLDC was still temporarily barred from bulldozing the houses, it did the next-best thing: it sent the Institute for Justice a notice that the institute's clients owed back rent for living in their own homes. Von Winkle owed $301,756 for his house and rental units. The Derys owed$229,900. "If we stay here much longer, we'll have to give them a dog and maybe some furniture," Matt Dery says sardonically.

Ed O'Connell, the attorney, says the city and NLDC were just trying to safeguard the public purse. Since New London owns the houses, he argues, its officials have a responsibility to earn money from the buildings."It's not like we charged them rent as a way of grinding salt into their wounds," he says. "There's taxpayer dollars involved."

In reality, there's been plenty of salt grinding, intentional or otherwise. Twice, The Hartford Courant quoted former NLDC president Claire Gaudiani as saying, "Anything that's working in our great nation is working because somebody left skin on the sidewalk."("It's fine to say when it's not your skin," Matt Dery grumbles.) Gaudiani's husband, a Pfizer executive, made matters worse when he publicly declared, "Pfizer wants a nice place to operate. We don't want to be surrounded by tenements."

With the Supreme Court about to rule in the New London case, cities across the United States are wondering whether their own redevelopment projects will be allowed to move forward—and homeowners in the path of those projects are wondering whether they'll be allowed to stay put. "There are dark clouds on the horizon for cities," warned Utah's Salt Lake Tribune last December, hinting that if the Derys win, the city of Ogden might find it harder to condemn 34 homes for a planned Wal-Mart superstore. Other places awaiting the high court's decision include Bowling Green, Kentucky; Camden, New Jersey; New Brighton, Minnesota; and Liberty, Missouri.

However the court rules, though, it'll be too late to save Fort Trumbull. These days, where neighborhood kids once romped, there are mostly rubble-strewn lots pocked with the occasional holdout house. One salmon-colored cottage, dating to 1893, is adorned with birdhouses and folk art and a sign that says "not for sale."

If you walk around Fort Trumbull, it's hard not to think of war zones. But the remaining residents don't think of their neighborhood that way. They want to stay. It's their home. At night it's quiet enough to feel like the countryside, dark enough to see the stars. Besides, they say, there's the principle. "If this all goes through, any house, anywhere, can be taken for higher tax dollars," says Von Winkle. "No house is safe."

The residents say they're willing to coexist with the new development. O'Connell says that's out of the question. The older houses wouldn't be in keeping with the planned development's character."You can put up a hotel," he says, "but you're not going to get a guest to pay $150 to look out at isolated buildings."

Besides, O'Connell adds, Fort Trumbull's residents romanticize their neighborhood. "This is not a garden spot," he says. "It was not some old Italian neighborhood. They were not passing cannolis across the fence to one another. It was one of the nondescript areas you see along the side of railroad tracks."

Matt Dery begs to differ. Friends still come by unexpectedly, then stay for a beer and a bowl of his wife's seafood-tomato soup. And the cross-driveway pasta shuttle continues. Says Matt: "As long as there's one16-year-old kid ferrying a big tray of ravioli over to his grandparents and telling his grandmother that he loves her and getting a hug and a kiss, this is still an Italian neighborhood."

Barry Yeoman wrote about hospice care in the January & February 2005 issue.

 

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