- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Supreme Court listened to oral arguments yesterday on whether a city’s private development and revitalization plans provide enough justification to force people to sell their homes to the government.

A group of homeowners in New London, Conn., say the city has illegally tried to force them to sell their properties to pave the way for a riverfront hotel, private offices and a health club.

City officials argue that they were justified in using “eminent domain” proceedings to force out homeowners because the new development would bring jobs and tax revenue and is an integral link in the depressed coastal city’s revitalization plan.

The case could have a profound effect on eminent domain proceedings nationwide. Although the Supreme Court will not issue its ruling until the summer, the case has attracted throngs of observers eager to hear the justices’ position on what requirements a city government must meet in order to take over desired land owned by citizens.

Among those on who turned out to listen to the arguments was D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a strong proponent of eminent domain, who was on hand in his capacity as president of the National League of Cities.

“It is critically important that the court continue to allow us to use this important power,” Mr. Williams had said in a statement posted on the league’s Web site.

Mr. Williams’ reported plan to use eminent domain to acquire and demolish several businesses adjacent to the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington to make way for a new baseball stadium might hinge on how the court rules.

The Connecticut case argued yesterday involves the question of whether, in forcing homeowners to sell to the city, New London officials violated the “takings clause” of the Fifth Amendment, which says private property can be taken from individuals “for public use” as long as “just compensation” is provided.

The city argues that because the private development will provide economic growth, it is equivalent to “public use” and enough justification to use eminent domain authority to force homeowners to sell.

The homeowners disagree, and for the past seven years, 15 of them have refused to sell, despite lower court rulings that have allowed the city to go forward with its private development plans.

Through a city-created, nonprofit development corporation, New London used eminent domain in 1998 to clear residents from a 90-acre redevelopment site. The development corporation then leased the property for $1 per year to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., which in turn built a multimillion-dollar research center.

The homes of those who refused to sell are huddled on a 11/2-acre corner of the site, a portion that the city has yet to develop. Susette Kelo, a registered nurse who lives in one of the homes, said yesterday that her reason for holding out so long is simple: “I want to keep my home.”

Scott G. Bullock, a lawyer representing Ms. Kelo and the 14 other homeowners, told the justices it is unconstitutional for a city government to force someone to sell for the sole purpose of using that person’s land for a new commercial project.

New London was once a hub of the Atlantic whaling industry and later of the New England manufacturing circuit, but its population of nearly 25,000 has struggled economically in recent decades.

Wesley W. Horton, a lawyer representing the city, told the justices that the private development will be so lucrative to New London’s revitalization that it constitutes a legitimate form of “public use” as required by the Fifth Amendment.

Several justices appeared critical. As he started his argument, Mr. Horton said the “principle purpose of the takings clause is to provide just compensation.” Before he could finish, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor interrupted, saying, “But it has to be for a valid public use.”

Justice O’Connor then asked whether a city could force the sale of a Motel 6 if the city thought that “if it had a Ritz-Carlton it would get higher taxes.”

Added Justice Antonin Scalia: “Taking property from someone who doesn’t want to sell it, does that count for nothing?”

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