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New London must take back Fort Trumbull

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 05/24/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/23/2013 11:42 PM

I am not a lawyer, but even a layperson can read the state law governing redevelopment projects like the one for Fort Trumbull and see that it requires that the land be titled in the name of the city.

Connecticut general statute 8-199 could not be more clear: "Title to land taken or acquired pursuant to a development plan shall be solely in the name of the municipality."

And yet, the City of New London has dithered all these years, allowing the title to the Fort Trumbull properties to remain in the name of the New London Development Corp., and now Renaissance City Development Association.

It's time Mayor Finizio and the City Council begin the legal process to right this terrible wrong.

Get the titles to Fort Trumbull, including all those properties taken by eminent domain, and put them where they belong, under the control of a government elected by and accountable to city residents.

The New London Development Corp. can continue on its merry way, arrogantly complaining about the city and its residents and officials and entering into any agreements it likes.

But it need no longer have control over what should be a treasured city asset.

Mayor Finizio has a huge mandate to get this done. He also made it into a central campaign pledge, a promise he needs to immediately begin to fulfill.

Changing the name of the failed redevelopment agency or putting some new faces around the board room conference table will not suffice.

Given the clarity of the law, it would seem there would always be a cloud over the title of the land anyway, if the NLDC or Renaissance City were to convey it directly to a developer.

It's not just non-lawyers who see this plainly in Connecticut law.

I raised the issue in a column in 2010, after someone sent me a copy of a memorandum by then-city Law Director Thomas J. Londregan, who acknowledged the Fort Trumbull properties need to be titled in the city's name.

I named it then Londregan's treadmill memo, because he said he wrote it after watching plumber Murray Renshaw's public access cable show, while exercising on the treadmill, back in 2007.

"NLDC is aware of (statute 8-199.) I have pointed it out to them," the city attorney wrote. "There is a clear understanding - so clear I recall putting it in writing - that the title to this land is to be in the name of the City of New London ...

"The clear understanding between the NLDC and the City of New London is that when the NLDC has secured possession and title to the entire development parcel then the entire development parcel will be put in the name of the City of New London."

I asked, in 2010, then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal about title to the Fort Trumbull property, and he expressed chagrin that it was not in the name of the city, as called for in the statute.

"This situation is unique and unprecedented," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said the city has the authority and statutory mandate to move forward and take title and that a resolution should be fairly straightforward.

When I asked Londregan in 2010 about the memo, he deflected email and voicemail messages and responded through then-Mayor Rob Pero, who said the city was waiting for the plan to be "implemented," roads finished, etc., before title passes.

Well, another three years have passed, and time's up on the excuses.

Curiously, statue 8-199 goes on to address what happens to a redevelopment plan like the one for Fort Trumbull when three years pass and nothing happens.

"If after three years from the date of approval of the development plan the development agency has been unable to transfer by sale or lease the whole or any part of the real property the municipality, by vote of its legislative body, may abandon the project plan and such real property may be conveyed free of any restriction."

There you have it. The law is very clear: The city should have title to the land and may abandon the existing redevelopment plan to let the duly elected representatives of the people of New London decide what's next.

If Mayor Finizio can summon at Fort Trumbull a small measure of the success he had in cobbling back together the long-delayed National Coast Guard Museum project, the city will be well served.

Why not explore some innovative and creative ideas to create the kind of mixed-use city neighborhood envisioned for Fort Trumbull by the esteemed Yale Urban Design Workshop?

Why not carve the land into house lots and offer them free to homesteaders? First dibs go to those displaced by eminent domain or their heirs.

Set some particular architectural and zoning guidelines to create small commercial and retail uses along with multifamily homes. Encourage alternative energy sources and creative use of the waterfront and public open space.

Save some room for a hotel or marina.

Give the same tax abatements to new homeowners the City Council had agreed to give to New York City developers.

People will line up for a chance to become part of an exciting new urban neighborhood on the water, one next to a beautiful state park and in sight of a new national museum. I'll bet many of the young designers at Electric Boat, who could walk to work, would be first in line.

Make the historic peninsula a showcase for New London pride and erase for good the national shame of eminent domain.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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