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The Kelo Legacy

Kelo v. New London continues to surface in discussions across the country

I tend to visit the humor website Cracked.com during lunch, as I can usually count on at least one interesting article. The site is best known for “Top 5” types of articles based around topics ranging from the natural world to movies. Recently the article leading the site was entitled “The 5 Most Terrifying Supreme Court Decisions.” I figured New London would probably make the cut.

If it’s any comfort, the authors are of the opinion that there are four decisions more terrifying than Kelo v. City of New London. However, it does summarize the decision with a header reading, “A business can kick you out of your house if it wants to build there.” They also conclude that the Supreme Court “sided with New London, because money makes you nod your head at inappropriate times” and that Pfizer “heroically ran out of funds and didn’t build anything, leaving an empty lot that was eventually turned into a garbage dump.”

This is only the latest time I’ve seen something based on the Kelo case. I set up a Google alert on the name after seeing that there were some preliminary moves in Congress to get the decision reversed, and scarcely a day goes by when the alert doesn’t bring up a news article or opinion piece referencing the case.

I came to New London well after the conclusion of the eminent domain matter, although people still mentioned the case with disdain during City Council meetings I attended in 2010. Some time later, I read Little Pink House, Jeff Benedict’s account of the case. There’s a section near the end that neatly summed up the tragic circumstances of the case. Benedict praises the Fort Trumbull homeowners as a courageous group willing to stand up for their rights, but also concludes that the unpopularity of the Supreme Court decision made companies reticent to become part of the development plan. In the end, everybody lost.

The case is a bit unusual in that it was bipartisan both in support and opposition. There were Democrats and Republicans alike who were in favor of using eminent domain at Fort Trumbull, but opponents in both parties have also used the case to warn of the dangers of their respective bugaboos. For liberals, it’s big business running rampant; for conservatives, it’s activist judges trampling individual rights.

As we get farther away from the court decision, the opinion pieces sometimes have major inaccuracies. The allegation that the land had been turned into a garbage dump stems from the temporary use of Fort Trumbull as a place to drop off debris from Tropical Storm Irene, and this was done at the site of the former Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory rather than a residential parcel. One comment on the Cracked article complained that the Pfizer complex “stands empty” when in fact Electric Boat has moved in (although they’re still in the middle of trying to pay significantly lower taxes than Pfizer did).

However, the continuing passion regarding the case has contributed to an overarching theme of caution in stories from across the nation. In eminent domain issues from coast to coast, articles note the Kelo case as a factor causing people to give the matter careful consideration. There are still comments unhappily dubbing New London the “eminent domain capital of the world” and you can still spot bumper stickers reading, "Welcome to New London: Your Home Is Ours!" But if nothing else, the city might be better known at this point for helping many other communities ensure that they proceed with their own land use issues in the most responsible way possible.

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NewLondonSource September 24, 2012 at 10:38 AM
Dirk: I think your opinion piece could be a bit more thorough; you make the statement "although [EB is] still in the middle of trying to pay significantly lower taxes than Pfizer did" without noting that EB acquired the property for 1/6 its appraised value. Think of it this way - If you snagged a house originally appraised at $1M for $600k (not an entirely unrealistic scenario in this market, by the way), would you want to pay taxes on the $600k or the $1M? (And yes, I realize that taxes are based on assessments, not appraisals, but the point still stands). That aside, EB/General Dynamics is being a bit two-faced in that on one hand they are suing the city for a lower tax assessment, but on the other graciously accepting tax abatements that the city offered to them. Seems like they got the cake, ate it and are asking for more.
Max September 24, 2012 at 01:22 PM
On the EB front - yes they are paying on a depeciated building and contesting. It would be intertesting to note how that gap - Pfizer ownership (with expectation of increased taxes for the City) and the fire-sale depreciated assessment that EB has figured into the City's deficit (the claim has been made that previous administrations over estimated revenues - was that what they thought was going to come from Pfizer? Pfizer was by far and away the single largest tax payer with the expectation of a dramatic increase once the abatement ended. (Just another example of how the "big boys play". On the other hand, New London lacks grass-roots leadership. We have folks that can smell a scam and injustice a mile away. They'll fight like hell to stop something but have no appetite for building from the rubble - we see it time and again.

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