On March 3rd, the City of New London, Connecticut, and the quasi-public New London Development Corporation finally did what they’ve been hot to do since 1998: Bulldoze the family home of Michael Cristofaro.
Along with Susette Kelo, Michael Cristofaro was among the six people who in 2004 petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stop New London from using eminent domain to take their properties in the blue collar neighborhood of Fort Trumbull. Eminent domain is government’s constitutional right to seize private property (if fair recompense is paid) in the name of “public use.” Traditional public uses include roads and bridges. New London’s planned public use was a private development project; an upscale residential and commercial complex that would better enhance the adjoining facilities of Pfizer Pharmaceutical and pump more taxes into the city budget. Promoters of the plan trumpeted the projected tax bennies but kept the Pfizer angle on the down low.
While New London’s municipal government and its representative the NLDC were front line in the attack on Fort Trumbull, the strategy of redevelopment by land grab was hatched and financed at state levels, primarily by Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, an agency partly dependent on federal funding. Pfizer, a prime corporate player in Connecticut, was also in on the extreme urban planning. Meanwhile, at the NLDC office, an aerial photo of Fort Trumbull made it clear the neighborhood was targeted for death from above.
In June 2005, in a 5-4 decision on Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court let New London’s curious idea of public use stand. Wrangling continued between the state, city and Fort Trumbull resistors for another year. The national outcry over the decision made those representing The State (in the broad sense) wary of a full throttle eviction. But the inevitable denouement loomed. Eventually the resistors accepted buyouts. Delivered by the city and NLDC. Paid for by taxpayers, not Pfizer or the private developer of the Fort Trumbull project. Some said the settlements were outsize and that by holding out, the resistors got a better deal. If so, kudos. They started sans bargaining chips, outweighed by the monumental power of government. For 9 long years they fought their way to a degree of victory, if not to the end they desired. In the process their resistance disproved the theory that eminent domain is a cheap path to urban revitalization and raised national awareness of the erosion of property rights in the name of economic development.
Several settlements involved more than money. Susette Kelo’s cottage was not to be destroyed but moved to another location. Michael Cristofaro was promised that the plantings on his family’s property would be safely removed. Michael’s parents had lived in the house for decades. The trees and shrubs around their home had been planted with love.
On March 3rd, Michael Cristofaro stood and watched as his parents’ home was destroyed. Susette Kelo and Kathleen Mitchell stood with him. (Mitchell, a New London resident, is doyenne of the local activist website CT/RSVP.) It was a raw and rainy day. Heavy equipment tore into the building. The trees and shrubs had not been removed. After the Cristofaro house was demolished, the building next door went down. NLDC Project Manager John Brooks was on the scene. At one point a rat ran from the rubble and across his feet. Michael Cristofaro zinged out: “Rats find other rats.”
When later asked by a reporter from the New London Day about the trees and shrubs on what used to be the Cristofaro property, NLDC president Michael Joplin served up the usual cheese. Making like the mayor of Excuses Village. Connecticut state government continues to do likewise re eminent domain reform. Thirty four other states have passed reforms addressing eminent domain abuse. Some even have teeth. But in the Nutmeg State, where the battle of Fort Trumbull started it all, the state legislature is still passing a platter of nada. Though Governor Jodi Rell is pushing a reform lite proposal. A far better proposal can be found at Connecticut Local Politics. Advocating the creation of “a State Board of Eminent Domain made up entirely of people who lost their homes in Fort Trumbull.”
Speaking of reform, on March 5th Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised that change is coming to the People’s Republic. Where protests, demonstrations and overall social unrest have become a constant, and the growing gap between rich and poor is feared to be threatening the ruling party’s hold on power. In a speech to the national legislature at the opening of their annual session, Wen said hot button issues will be addressed. On the list are corruption and development related land seizures from peasants and farmers. The latter may prove particularly dicey since China doesn’t have the kind of property rights we do.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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