Eminent domain up close

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I am the Kelo in Kelo v. City of New London — the now-infamous U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled private property, including my home, could be taken by another private party promising to create more jobs and taxes with the land. Just last week, three of my neighbors got eviction notices, giving them 30 to 90 days to leave their homes.

I received just such a notice five years ago, the day before Thanksgiving, which marked the beginning of my fight to defend what is rightfully mine. It took a gutsy demand from my state’s governor to finally make the private condemning agency back down for now on its demand that I and my neighbors give up our homes so they could be bulldozed.

Today, I am scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on eminent domain abuse. I sincerely hope Congress will do what judges and local legislators so far have failed to do for me and for thousands of others across the nation: protect our homes under a plain reading of the U.S. Constitution, which says government may only take private property for a “public use.”

Federal lawmakers should pass legislation that will withhold federal funding for eminent domain projects that are for private development — such as the one that could take my home, and which received $2 million in federal funds.

While this legislation is very important, it is not a magic solution to the many problems surrounding government use of eminent domain. If homeowners, small business owners, churches and others are to be safe, state and local lawmakers across the nation should follow the congressional lead and do what they should have been doing all along: respect our right to own property rather than cut sweetheart deals with developers who tempt lawmakers with the promise of more taxes and jobs. What we have now at the local, state and federal level amounts to “government by the highest bidder.”

Think I’m overstating the problem? Consider my story, variations of which are playing out with literally thousand of homeowners nationwide who now live under the threat of eminent domain for some other private party’s profit.

I grew up in southeastern Connecticut and bought my house at 8 East St. in New London in 1997. It was just what I wanted: great view of the water, affordable price, nice neighbors. I enjoyed fixing it up and making my family’s home. I invested a lot of time and energy in this house and my neighborhood.

In 1998, a real estate agent came by and made me an offer on the house on behalf of an unnamed buyer. I explained to her I was not interested in selling, but she said my home would be taken by eminent domain if I refused to sell. She told me stories of her relatives who had lost their homes to eminent domain. Her advice? Give up. The government always wins.

Why did the City and the New London Development Corp. (NLDC) want to kick us out? To make way for up-scale condos and other private developments that could bring in more taxes to the city and possibly more jobs. The poor and middle class had to make way for the rich and politically connected.

If the government was taking our property for a road or firehouse, I would be prepared to sell without a fight. But the government should not be able to force me to sell my home so someone else can enjoy my view. NLDC wants my land to market to a developer for projects to “complement” our area’s new Pfizer facility. This is for private profit, not public use.

Nearly all my neighbors’ homes have been bulldozed — all but those seven families who stayed and fought not only for our rights, but for the rights of homeowners nationwide.

Like my neighbors up the street, I worked hard (in my case, at up to three jobs at a time) to pay for my home. And we should not be forced out by our own government simply because someone else who carries more political clout wants the land for a nonpublic use. Isn’t that what the courts, Congress and the Constitution are supposed to protect us from?

As I sat there in the U.S. Supreme Court back in February and listened to the justices hear my case, I was so disappointed their very first question and first concern was for the power of government rather than the rights of citizens.

In many ways, my neighbors and I are the victims of legislators, lawyers and judges who believe it is somehow a sign of intelligence to make language that clearly means one thing mean something exactly the opposite: “Public use” now means private use; judges don’t judge but instead let legislators decide whether they’re violating the Constitution. There is nothing intelligent about misusing language in this way to take away people’s homes and their rights.

What is happening to me should not happen to anyone else. Congress and state legislatures need to send a message to local governments that this kind of abuse of power not only won’t be funded, it won’t be tolerated.

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