Eminent Domain

Will Connecticut—Home of the Kelo Supreme Court Case—Finally End Eminent Domain Abuse?

A bill in the state legislature would stop cities from seizing property and handing it over to developers.

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When the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London in 2005 to allow local governments to use eminent domain to seize private property and turn it over to private developers, many states and communities—sometimes under pressure from citizens—put into place their own laws and regulations to stop it anyway.

But not, of course, Connecticut, which is where New London and Susette Kelo's former property can be found. The private development that prompted the property seizures—for the benefit of pharmaceutical company Pfizer—ultimately never even happened. Kelo's former property is now an empty lot.

Now there's a legislative push in Connecticut to finally reform the state's eminent domain laws to prevent another situation like Kelo's. HB 5123, introduced by Rep. Tami Zawistowski (R-Suffield) would stop the state and its municipalities from using eminent domain to take property that would be used for any project that generates income for a private commercial purpose.

New London wasn't the only Connecticut city to turn to eminent domain for a private commercial development. The city of West Haven followed in New Haven's footsteps in 2015 and authorized the use eminent domain to get property so that private developers could build an "upscale outlet mall."

Attorneys for the Institute for Justice, who represented Kelo in her fight, have also been assisting citizens of West Haven who wanted to resist being forced to sell by the city. In an opinion piece in the Hartford Courant today, Renée Flaherty, an Institute for Justice Attorney who represented West Haven property owners, and Carol Platt Liebau, of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, call for Connecticut to join most of the rest of the country in putting some restrictions on how eminent domain may be used:

In the wake of Kelo, eminent domain reform spread across the country. Twenty-three states enacted substantive reforms that have almost entirely eliminated eminent domain for private development. Eleven of those states passed constitutional amendments that strictly limit the use of eminent domain to transfer property to private developers. In addition, 10 state high courts have either rejected Kelo or made it more difficult for government to engage in takings for private development. All told, since the Kelo decision, 47 states have strengthened the rights of private property owners in either the statehouse or the court house.

To its shame, Connecticut remains one of only three states that continues to embrace eminent domain abuse. For example, West Haven recently joined New London in embarking on ill-advised deals with private developers. The city of West Haven's redevelopment plan sought to take land—by eminent domain if necessary—and transfer it to a private developer who could then displace the existing commercial and residential properties with a luxury shopping center.

As in New London, nothing has yet been built in West Haven, though the first phase of the project's plan was approved last summer. The project has a second phase, and should it actually move forward, the passage of HB 5123 would stop city leaders from forcing additional property owners to sell their homes and businesses so that a private developer can build there.

The bill passed the House's Planning and Development Committee, 15-6, but does not yet appear to be scheduled for a full House vote.

Reason's Damon Root explains here why the Kelo decision is one of the worst Supreme Court rulings of the past 50 years. Little Pink House, the 2017 movie adaptation of the Kelo fight, is available for rent on Amazon Prime for a mere $2.99.

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