“?.nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”.
With those twelve words tacked on at the end of the 5th Amendment, the Founders of this country sought to protect private property from an unjust taking by the government.
To be sure, the U.S. Supreme court decision in the recent Kelo v. New London case, has shocked and outraged Americans. But so far public discussion has focused on whether the takings clause allows condemning private property for the financial gain of another private entity. While this interpretation is cause for alarm and deserves public scrutiny, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the power to condemn private property is used ? and abused ? by those elected to serve us.
You see, long before the rest of the country heard of this idyllic small New England town, some of the residents were getting their first taste of the powers of eminent domain.
After plans to redevelop the Fort Trumbull area were approved by the City of New London in 1999, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), a quasi-public entity empowered by the city to use the sovereign power of eminent domain, started acquiring private property, including a neighborhood of approximately 80 older homes.
In a recent interview on my radio show with two of the remaining homeowners, Susette Kelo and Michael Cristofaro, I got a tiny glimpse of what the last 5 years have been like. Here is what they told me about their nightmare.
In the beginning representatives from the NLDC showed up on their doorsteps with contracts in hand, ready to be signed. The homeowners were told to accept the money they were offered as their homes had been condemned and they would end up with nothing. Most of the homeowners, many of them in their 80?s and 90?s, fearful of being left not only homeless but penniless as well, signed the contracts and vacated their homes. They moved out of their neighborhood, and home, for the first time ever.
The homeowners who did not surrender their homes immediately were threatened, intimidated and harassed. Agents representing the City of New London called on the phone and banged on their doors at all hours of the day and night, insisting that they sign the contracts. Bulldozers mowed down the homes as soon as the NLDC took possession of them, burying personal objects and mementoes in the rubble they created. They left no physical traces of the generations of families that once inhabited the area. The same bulldozers were then parked in front of the remaining homes, as a menacing reminder of the threat that still hung over them, promising them that their turn would come. When that tactic failed to produce the desired results, roads were blocked, denying the residents access to their homes.
It is hard to imagine that the Founders of this country envisioned the citizens they worked hard to protect would end up being treated by public servants in this manner. It is equally hard to believe that, in the unfortunate event that private property would have to be used for a “public use”, that the owners would not be made as whole as possible.
But the provision for “just compensation” has, if possible, been even more abused than the condemnation itself.
One condemned property was valued at $60,000 (Cristofaro?s) by the assessors hired by the city. This is the same city, which, in 2000, assessed the property at $215,000 for tax purposes. The rationale being that as the property is under threat of condemnation, it has no value. ” It is important to note that Christofaro actually offered to give the city his house n return for one of the yet to be built condos. However, city officials told him that would be impossible because they didn?t yet know how much the new condos would be worth. The elderly whose family homes were taken from them in the name of “progress” were left not only homeless, but penniless, as well. There is nothing “just” about a system that sanctions stealing private property.
And, to add insult to injury, the city now is demanding rent of $600 a month, going back 5 years. So much for the mandate for “just compensation”.
But I saved the best for last. In the case of New London and their plans for rebuilding the city, there are no plans for the land 11 houses sit on. The NLDC does not need the 11 remaining houses in Fort Trumbull to proceed with the approved plans to redevelop the area. They fought the homeowners, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, not because the houses were in their way but because, as has been reported in the past, the new residents of the now more upscale neighborhood, “do not want to look at these properties.
On the plus side, if the City of New London, through their henchmen at the NLDC succeed in demolishing the existing houses and replacing them with newer, pricier housing, chances are these new, self sustained neighborhoods will come with a homeowners association. So the next time New London decides to embark on some neighborhood cleansing program, they can be assured that the associations, using contract law as their authority, will rid the city of the “undesirable” citizens. And the city leaders can face their constituents with clean hands and, if their acting skills are sharp enough, some feigned empathy.