For lead plaintiff, 'What they did was wrong then, and it's still wrong today'

Susette Kelo speaks to reporters on Feb., 22, 2005, outside the U.S. Supreme Court as her attorney Scott Bullock, right, looks on. Kelo and several other homeowners filed a lawsuit after city officials announced plans to bulldoze their residences to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, healthclub and offices. The residents refused to move, arguing it was an unconstitutional taking of their property. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Susette Kelo speaks to reporters on Feb., 22, 2005, outside the U.S. Supreme Court as her attorney Scott Bullock, right, looks on. Kelo and several other homeowners filed a lawsuit after city officials announced plans to bulldoze their residences to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, healthclub and offices. The residents refused to move, arguing it was an unconstitutional taking of their property. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

From her home in Groton, Susette Kelo can look across the Thames River at New London and see the peninsula where her little pink house once stood in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

The land remains vacant to this day. Her old garden plot now grows only weeds. Feral cats have taken up residence where Kelo and others once lived.

Though some of the land at Fort Trumbull has been cleaned of contamination, some roads have been replaced and the utilities have been upgraded, virtually none of the promised developments have come to fruition.

“Seventy-eight million dollars they wasted down there pushing dirt around,” Kelo said in an interview last week in New London. “And for what? Roads to nowhere, sidewalks to nowhere.”

A decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city and its development corporation could legally take Kelo’s home and 14 other properties in the working-class neighborhood to make way for a luxury hotel, office space and parking lots, she reflected on her experience as the "Kelo" in the famous Kelo v. City of New London case.

From Kelo's perspective, the city and the New London Development Corp. took hers and others' homes away to create a "HIP little city," which she says stands for "higher income people."

She said she has not set foot in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood since she left after reaching an agreement in 2006 with the state to have the pink house spared from the wrecking ball and rebuilt on Franklin Street.

“It was something we said when we left, that we were never coming back here again,” she said. “Having a desire to go back there is one thing, but going back there is totally something else.”

Kelo, who works as a nurse in the cardiology department of The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, said she pays little attention to the various proposals that have been suggested for her old neighborhood.

“We always knew it wouldn’t work. We used to tell them in meetings these plans aren’t any good, but they didn’t want to listen to us,” she said. “Are we glad there is nothing there?

"Yeah. Eat crow.”

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio’s 2012 apology to the Fort Trumbull litigants on behalf of the city was “too little, too late,” she said.

Finizio’s proposal to spare Kelo’s former property from future development by establishing it as a park does not interest her much, either.

“They can’t take care of the parks they’ve got. This city is so mismanaged,” she said.

And though Kelo said she loves New London, she has moved away for good.

“I know people still come here to live, but I wouldn’t come back here to live. My thought process is, what neighborhood is next? Because they’re not done,” she said. “Maybe they might think twice about it, but I doubt it. They’d do it again in a heartbeat if they thought they were going to make money and their friends were going to make money and the politicians were going to get donations.”

'We're going to lose our house'

Kelo bought the house at the corner of East and Trumbull streets in 1997 and moved from Preston to be close to the water. The Fort Trumbull neighborhood, she said, was a good spot because it was near the water but was still affordable.

“It was just simply a working-class neighborhood,” she said. “A little neighborhood where people lived, enjoyed their lives, paid their bills, went to work, obeyed the law.”

Though most of the neighborhood was made up of commercial properties, Kelo became close with many of the neighbors.

“Some of the best people I ever met in my life, I met in that neighborhood,” she said. “They were just nice people. When the whole lot of them was there, there were a lot of nice people. And then, slowly but surely, they got picked off, moved away and then we were left with just us seven.”

Shortly after Kelo moved to New London, the NLDC began buying up property in "the fort," as the neighborhood was known. Once it bought every property that owners were willing to sell, the NLDC used the power of eminent domain to take the rest. Kelo and six other property owners controlling a total of 15 properties resisted and filed suit to stay in their homes.

For nearly five years, the lawsuit wound its way from Superior Court in New London through the Connecticut Supreme Court and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the NLDC began razing the homes it had purchased.

“You were living your life in shock for years because you really couldn’t believe any of this stuff was going on. You spend all your time thinking, ‘Well, they can’t do this to us,’ and then when they do it you’re like, ‘This cannot be happening,’” Kelo said. “We lived, slept, breathed, dreamt eminent domain. We thought about it before we went to bed and the first thing on our minds when we woke up was eminent domain — we’re going to lose our house.”

In particular, Kelo said, she was incensed by the way the city and the NLDC treated the Dery family, whose roots in Fort Trumbull stretched back to 1895. Matt and Sue Dery lived next door to Matt’s mother, Wilhelmina Dery, who was born in her house on Walbach Street in 1918. Wilhelmina Dery lived her entire life in Fort Trumbull, and died in her home after the Supreme Court’s decision but before the homeowners agreed to leave.

“It’s really very sad for them, more so than me or anybody else that was there,” she said. “What they did to them was disgusting.”

'The weight of the world'

Kelo was at work when Scott Bullock called her on the morning of June 23, 2005. Bullock, an attorney from the public interest law firm Institute for Justice, represented Kelo and the other Fort Trumbull residents in their fight to keep their homes.

“He put it the way a lawyer would put it and I told him I didn’t know what that meant,” Kelo recalled. “Then he said, ‘We lost.’”

By that time, Kelo and her little pink house had become symbols of the fight against eminent domain abuse. National news outlets swarmed outside her house. She was featured on cable news networks, and private property rights groups threatened to come to New London and riot, she said.

“Although we really always wanted the support, it really turned into quite a mess,” Kelo said. “When this thing started, it was simply about me and my house, me and my pink house. That was it. But what it grew into was something that went nationwide.”

Kelo recalled seeing a public opinion poll in which 97 percent of respondents said they disagreed with the high court’s ruling.

“That’s everybody but the planners and the developers,” she said. “I don’t know who the 3 percent was, morons maybe, I don’t know.”

The intense attention on her was more than Kelo had bargained for.

“My mother has the weight of the world on her shoulders,” Kelo recalled her son, Willis, saying to a negotiator from the state, “and the whole country is waiting to see what she’s going to do next.”

“That’s pretty much the way it ended,” she said.

'A miserable situation'

“Life goes on. You just get back to life. You do the best you can,” she said. “Nobody was happy about having to leave, there was of course some emotion involved with that, but like anything else you try to move on.”

In the years since the Supreme Court’s decision, Kelo has testified before state and federal committees, and advocated for restrictions on eminent domain use in other states. But she is reluctant to discuss her story publicly in the media.

“It’s nice that people are keeping this up in the forefront. I think people need to be reminded of what happened here,” she said. “I don’t know so much that I need to be reminded, but I think it’s good that people still have an interest in what happened here. It shouldn’t happen to anybody in this country.”

And because her name was the first listed in the homeowners’ lawsuit and will forever be tied to a widely reviled Supreme Court decision, reminders of the past occasionally pop up in her everyday life.

“I certainly don’t go around talking about it, that’s for sure,” she said. “If someone sees me at the hospital and says, ‘Are you the lady whose house they took by eminent domain?’ and I say yeah, that just means to me that they paid attention and they knew what was going on.”

Ten years later, Kelo’s insistence that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision has not wavered.

“It was a miserable situation. It was wrong,” Kelo said. “What they did was wrong then and it’s still wrong today.”

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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Kelo v. New London: 10 Years Later

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