Civil Liberties

Eviction Notice

Will people lose their homes to make way for a new Coast Guard museum?


For a brief moment in March, Susette Kelo of New London, Connecticut, thought she had saved her home. After all, Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Corradino had ruled that the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), an organization set up to take over her Fort Trumbull neighborhood, couldn't take her house through eminent domain. But then she got her hands on the decision. "As I read, I realized that I had won the right to stay, but really only to fight again," says Kelo, who after four and a half years of battling the NLDC describes herself as a tortured homeowner. "My concern is that they will come back with a legitimate plan and I don't know what will happen."

She's right to be concerned. The 247-page decision was double-spaced, a feature that, as NLDC chief operating officer Dave Goebel says, provides plenty of space to read between the lines. And the lesson Goebel took from the decision, which is now on appeal, is that the judge rejected his land grab not because it's unconstitutional for governments to take property from one citizen only to hand it to another, but because he had no concrete plans as to whom was going to get Kelo's property. "All that means is that once you have a valid project you can take the land," says Goebel. "There was a project we had in mind, and that was putting the National Coast Guard museum on that site." So now Kelo and her neighbors fear forcible eviction if the Coast Guard decides it wants her plot of land.

Should it? In seven of the last 10 years, the Coast Guard has had to rely on emergency appropriations, those normally reserved for farmers and hurricane victims, to carry out its mission of keeping boaters safe, ports secure, and drug prices high. President Bush promised to boost its budget $1.6 billion, to $7.1 billion, for 2003. But nearly half the increase is going straight into the military retirement fund, and the service will surely be back asking for more. An inspector general report finds that the Coast Guard is doubling its effort on homeland security, and that this will leave it short in other critical areas, such as search and rescue staffing.

So why, in a time of war, should it be spending its scarce resources on a damn museum?

The Coast Guard is being cagey. It understandably doesn't want to get involved in an ugly eminent domain fight, and it promises to stay out of the court battles. Yet it plans to sign a memorandum of agreement with the NLDC to accept, as a gift, property for its museum. Its preferred site happens to include plots of land that Kelo and others call home. Coast Guard spokesmen won't commit to not accepting land taken through eminent domain. They say they will only accept land obtained legally, which may very well include forcible eviction.

The NLDC's Goebel says he expects the Coast Guard to sign up. He has no other plans for the area.

That's not to say that no one else does. "What I find ironic is everyone saying what they want to do on this property," says Matt Dery, Kelo's neighbor, whose family has lived in its Fort Trumbull homestead since 1901. "What they forget is that there is someone else living there–us."

Kelo understands why the Coast Guard would want her land. "They want my property as much as I do," she says. "The only problem is that I was here first."