House Minority Leader Rep. Robert Ward (R-North Branford) has introduced a bill that would prohibit the seizure through eminent domain of small owner-occupied homes for private development. The bill is in response to the ongoing legal battle over New London's Fort Trumbull neighborhood. Here is the text of the bill:
AN ACT PROHIBITING THE ACQUISITION OF CERTAIN RESIDENTIAL REAL PROPERTY BY EMINENT DOMAIN FOR USE IN PRIVATELY OWNED OR CONTROLLED MUNICIPAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:
That subsection (a) of section 8-193 of the general statutes be amended to provide that owner-occupied residential dwellings consisting of four or fewer residential units shall not be acquired by eminent domain for use in a development project that will be privately owned or controlled.
Statement of Purpose:
To prohibit the acquisition of small owner-occupied residential dwellings by eminent domain for use in a municipal development project that will be privately owned or controlled.
(from the General Assembly's website.)
A public hearing on the bill was held yesterday. Ward defended his bill, saying:
“I have concerns about the use of eminent domain as it affects all private property, but I am deeply concerned when it involves owner-occupied residences,” Ward told the committee, “because I think the right of individuals to own property, and particularly their own home, is a unique part of American democracy.” (Mann)
The Supreme Court is to rule by June on whether the seizure of private property for private development, even when the results will theoretically benefit the public through enlargement of the grand list and revitalization of urban areas, can be classified as eminent domain. Ward's bill is an attempt to restrict the powers of quasi-governmental "development agencies" like the New London Development Corporation and others.
It makes sense that the private corporations set up by cities to redevelop urban centers for them should not have the full eminent domain power of the government. After all, private developers don't serve the public good; they will do what they think will create the most profit. This may or may not, in the end, benefit the city or its residents. A neighborhood may not be in the greatest of shape. But does it really benefit the residents of that neighborhood and the city at large to tear it down and build a hotel and convention center that they will never use?
“For the past half century, Connecticut cities have been declining, and efforts to revive them have struggled, due in large part to the scarcity of developable urban land,” said Ron Thomas of the Connecticut Council of Municipalities, adding that eminent domain was often the only method of assembling parcels for development. (Mann)
Yet the use of eminent domain as a sledgehammer for development is not always the answer, and can lead to wildly unsuccessful results. An example of this is Constitution Plaza in Hartford, one of the worst pieces of urban development I've ever seen. Also, the two major interstates that bisect Hartford and cut it off from the river have been so obviously bad for the health of the city that efforts have been made in the last decade to try and undo some of the damage (Riverfront Recapture, the I-84 tunnel).
Is there any reason to believe that private corporations will do any better? Perhaps the answer isn't to destroy what exists, but to work with it. Small-scale redevelopment and the preservation and/or enhancement of the city's existing neighborhoods, structures and infrastructure may be far better for the city and its residents than razing those things in favor of private interests.
Source: Mann, Ted. "Bill Would Curb Use Of Eminent Domain". New London Day 8 March, 2005. (subscription)