Eminent Domain Goes Bust


In 1998 the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced plans to build a giant new research and development center in New London, Connecticut. As part of the deal, city officials agreed to clear out neighboring property owners via eminent domain, giving a private developer space to build a fancy new hotel, apartment buildings, and office towers to complement the Pfizer facility. Seven years later, in Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this seizure of private property because it was part of a "comprehensive redevelopment plan" that would provide "appreciable benefits to the community."

In the November 2005 reason, Tim Cavanaugh interviewed Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock, who represented the homeowners before the Court. "The idea that having a plan and going through a planning process protects property owners in any way is completely disconnected from reality," Bullock said. "To think that this provides any protection for property owners who face the loss of their homes and small businesses is nonsense. And it shows how some members of this Court and some defenders of this policy don't understand how these things really pan out in the real world." 

Bullock was right. The project that was supposed to entice Pfizer and provide "appreciable benefits to the community" was never built, and in November 2009 the company announced that it was closing down its facility and pulling out of New London entirely. As for the properties that were seized and then bulldozed after the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval, they were never redeveloped and continue to stand empty today. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene last August, New London officials encouraged city residents to use the once thriving neighborhood as a dump site for storm debris.

But that's not the worst of it. As Hartford Courant reporter Jeff Benedict revealed in September, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer, one of the four justices who voted against the property owners and thus directly precipitated the Supreme Court's decision, personally apologized to homeowner Susette Kelo at a May 2010 event at the New Haven Lawn Club. "Justice Palmer turned to Susette, took her hand and offered a heartfelt apology," Benedict reported. "Tears trickled down her red cheeks. It was the first time in the 12-year saga that anyone had uttered the words 'I'm sorry.'?"