CT Liberty Blogging Part 1
Michael Cristofaro, one of the Fort Trumbull residents who lost his home, was also the lunchtime keynote speaker at the CT Liberty Forum (ongoing even as I type this). He mentioned in his speech an unpleasant bit of irony: the Clarion Hotel, where the forum’s taking place, was itself built on land confiscated through eminent domain. He didn’t know the details behind that particular bit of confiscation, but in New London, the development company was to be charged only one dollar per year for a lease on 85 acres of prime waterfront property.
The Kelo case wasn’t the first time New London brought the eminent domain axe down upon Cristofaro’s family. Cristofaro’s parents emigrated from Italy in 1962 and settled in New London which, in 1971, confiscated their house with the stated intention of building a seawall to hold back floodwaters.
A seawall would, at least, fall under the “public use” clause allowing eminent domain – except the seawall was never built. An office park now stands on the site of the Cristofaro family’s old house.
“They lied to us,” Cristofaro recalled. “And 35 years later, the whole story started over again.”
The law says that in cases of eminent domain, the city is supposed to pay “fair market value” for the property it confiscates. Cristofaro was offered $60,000 for his house – less than its assessed value for tax purposes. “But in the end, it’s not about the money. It’s about the lack of choice.” Being underpaid for his house bothers him far less than the fact that he never wanted to leave it in the first place.
Today, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood is what Cristofaro calls “85 acres of waterfront wasteland.” (The confiscated homes covered less than two acres of this space; the rest was already vacant.)
Though the houses were razed, the economic development never materialized. (The developers claim economic troubles.) Even if the promised office space and hotels were built, it still wouldn’t have helped the city; New London already has plenty of vacant office space, as well as hotels that rarely have more than 50 or 60 percent capacity. Cristofaro said he’s spoken with New London hotel owners who feel that if/when the promised new hotel materializes, it’ll put them out of business.
The Kelo case led to some alleged “reform” of eminent domain laws at the state level, but in Connecticut these reforms are cosmetic at best. There’s now an eminent-domain ombudsman paid 70 or 80 thousand tax dollars per year; if your house is threatened with confiscation the ombudsman will earn his salary by telling you it’s for a good cause. And since state legislators feel the eminent domain problem has thus been solved, they get very annoyed when upstarts like Cristofaro insist upon raising the issue.
Cristofaro said he once asked Ernie Hewitt from the state’s 39th district, “How would you feel if your mother lost her house to eminent domain?” Hewitt took offense and snapped, “You leave my mother out of this.”
On a more personal note: I’ve been chatting with various liberty-minded folk at the forum, and have been offered the chance to serve as a sacrificial lamb and run as a Libertarian Party candidate in the next state election. I said thanks, but admitted that due to some misguided fun in my youth there’s no way I’d ever survive the vetting process.