Nine years have passed since the controversial 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court in the eminent domain case of Kelo v. City of New London. What the advocates for economic development argued, fought for and supported has resulted in a 90 acre vacant wasteland where the homes of 7 small town residents once flourished.

Seizing the private property of the 7 Fort Trumbull residents would allow the City of New London to turn the property over to private developers to build luxury apartments, office buildings, retail space, restaurants and many more recreational hot spots. Pfizer, a leading pharmaceutical company, was also on board with the intent to build a research facility to generate new jobs and tax revenue for New London. The City seemed ecstatic about saving their “distressed municipality” which faced high rates of unemployment and economic decline and the Supreme Court ate up their sob story. To the Supreme Court, the idea of economic rejuvenation apparently outweighed the cost of the owners’ property rights and all American’s Constitutional liberties.

The 7 residents, including Susette Kelo, argued that taking private property and turning it over to a private company such as Pfizer “does not qualify as… public use.” However, the Supreme Court held otherwise stating that “the City’s development plan was not adopted ‘to benefit a particular class of identifiable individuals.’”

The Supreme Court, agreeing with the trial court, concluded that the City was rebuilding for growth and prosperity to benefit its citizens and that Pfizer “was not ‘the primary motivation or effect of this development plan’; instead, ‘the primary motivation … was to take advantage of Pfizer’s presence.’”

Pfizer was offered an 80-percent, 10-year property tax abatement for a $300 million research facility which the Supreme Court did not find suspicious.

So the residents were forced to take the compensation for the parcels they called home and the City was allowed to acquire the properties to turn them over to the developers to build their Pfizer project. If only this was a happily-ever-after story. Today the lots of those residents are filled with overgrown grass instead of high-rise buildings and upscale pedestrian “riverwalks.” In 2009, Pfizer backed out of its plan to build the research facility and redevelopment plans seized just as abruptly as they began.

The waters were a little murky; what does it matter? Possibly, those murky waters would have been forgotten if there was some type of redevelopment and economic growth in Fort Trumbull. But there wasn’t. The whole plan turned to nothing and the Supreme Court’s decision spiraled into a disaster. It shocked and scared many because it set precedent for private companies to take interest of citizen owned lands for their own economic interests. It caused many states, including California, to pass laws banning or restricting use of eminent domain for the purposes of economic rejuvenation. Indeed, in the wake of the backlash at Kelo, California did away with redevelopment agencies altogether.

In the end, all that is left are the memories of the once flourishing Fort Trumbull. Although there were no high-rise luxury apartments or gourmet restaurants, the residents of Fort Trumbull were happy with their home town. They fought a hard battle to save what was theirs; they pursued their rights to life, liberty and property. However, where there is no security for rights to property there is, consequently, no liberty.

On a somewhat brighter note for the future, dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia later predicted that the decision in Kelo would be overturned. He reportedly stated, “My court has, by my lights, made many mistakes of law…but it has made very few mistakes of political judgment, of estimating how far… it could stretch beyond the text of the Constitution without provoking overwhelming public criticism and resistance. Dred Scott was one mistake…Roe v. Wade was another… And Kelo, I think, was a third.”

Author: A.J. Hazarabedian
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