Civil Liberties

Going for Grandma's House

Eminent domain sends old ladies packing


When local governments dream of getting rich by going into the development business, chances are they'll soon be booting a grandma from her dream house. That was the case in 1994 in Atlantic City, when the government wanted to bulldoze elderly Vera Coking's house to build a limousine parking lot for a Trump casino. It was the case in 2000 in Baltimore, where residents beat back an attempt to kick Jingantree Parsom and her 76-year-old husband, among others, from their home to make way for a waterfront development. And now it's the case in New London, Connecticut, where the government is currently in court defending its inalienable right to evict 83-year-old Wilhelmina Dery from a property that's been in her family for more than 100 years.

The battle in New London represents the modern front in a war over government's misuse of the power of eminent domain. Eminent domain was once limited to the forcible taking of people's property for fairly well-defined "public goods" such as roads or bridges. Today, however, local governments team up with developers and condemn people's property in exchange for the promise of upscale development and increased tax revenues. (See "Death by Wrecking Ball.") New London's historic Fort Trumbull area became a target in 1998, after Viagra maker Pfizer decided to locate a $270 million research facility next door.

The problem, say planners, is that they need to increase the "radii" of the road that surrounds Dery's property. Other than that, they have no specific plans. In fact, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), the non-profit corporation behind the government taking, has yet to ink a development deal with anyone. Still, the general idea is for a private developer to build a Baltimore Inner Harboresque mecca of upscale apartments, marinas, retail shops, and restaurants. It'll also have a conference center for use by Pfizer.

There's just no place in such a grand plan for Dery's quarter-acre property, which contains four impeccably maintained houses. It has "no reuse value" according to the planners, a fate it shares with 114 other properties, the majority of which have already been destroyed. Six others have joined Dery in holding out. They have teamed up with the D.C.-based Institute for Justice to sue the city and the NLDC.

The city's position is starkly utilitarian. More than half of New London's property can't be taxed and the remaining 46 percent is fully developed, points out NLDC spokesman Christopher Riley. Local pols can only grab more money if they increase the city's tax base by upgrading existing property. Officials get dollar signs in their eyes, down to the penny, when they look to Fort Trumbull. "[The development] will result in a potential increase of taxes of $2,241,684.98," city lawyers note in a court document.

"I have to look out for the city as a whole, not just a few people," says Mayor Ernest Hewett, who vacillates between "feeling the residents' pain" and disparaging the neighborhood, which houses a waste water treatment plant. "People were running from the Fort Trumbull area two or three years ago because of the smell. No one would actually buy a house in the Fort Trumbull area."

Yet that's just what Susette Kelo and her husband did in 1997. Not far from Wilhelmina Dery's place, they purchased a delightful pink two-bedroom house on the southeast corner of East Street, that boulevard of broken dreams with a dangerously insufficient radii. Kelo enjoys a view as lively and varied as this traditionally immigrant neighborhood once was, with its auto shops, corner store, factory, café, construction companies, and social club. (As the government lawyers point out, such a mixed-use neighborhood no longer conforms to the city's code and therefore is truly a thing of the past.) In one direction, she can watch ferry boats head to Martha's Vineyard and Block Island. In other directions, she can gaze at petroleum tanks, the stacks of a factory, sailboats parked in a marina, and even the tip of Long Island. The earth-tone-and-glass Pfizer complex is also in view. From her back porch, she takes in the roof tops and thick green foliage of New London.

Kelo arrived home the day before Thanksgiving in 2000 and saw something else: eminent domain paperwork stuck to her door. It gave her until March 2001 to leave the home she loves behind. In the meantime, it demanded she pay rent of $500 a month (in Connecticut, the government technically owns the property once they serve eminent domain papers). The lawsuit, which bears her name, is holding off her eviction for now. But if she loses, she'll be a victim whose dreams have been paved over by progress, government style, in which the rights of citizens to their homes are trumped by the pressing need for increased corner radii.