An eminent domain warning to West Haven

Like many struggling municipalities, West Haven, a middle-class suburb of New Haven, welcomes new development to expand its tax base, so residents and officials have for the most part supported a plan to build an upscale mall along the waterfront.

The $200 million, 347,826-square-foot project would include 100 high-end outlet stores, six restaurants and an amphitheater overlooking New Haven Harbor — providing just the sort of economic boost to help the city of 55,000 recover from the closing over the years of such major employers as the Armstrong Rubber factory and a Bayer Pharmaceuticals plant.

But there's a potential hitch. Developers don't yet own or hold options on all the land upon which they hope to build, so city officials have been discussing the possibility of a tactic all too painfully familiar in New London: eminent domain.

Our question to any government entity contemplating seizing private property to help a commercial project would be: Didn't you learn anything from the Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court decision?

Though justices in 2005 ruled 5-4 in favor of New London's condemnation of homes and businesses in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make the property more attractive to private development, it prompted a bitter, city-wide dispute as well as an international outcry that now, a decade later, continues to resonate. Adding fuel to the fire has been the fact that bulldozed lots where private homes once stood remain vacant.

There has been speculation among legal scholars, and even by sitting justices, that the court eventually could reverse itself on the case, named for Susette Kelo, whose "little pink house" became the symbol of eminent domain opposition and will soon be a movie.

Though there are similarities between the New London and West Haven situations, it is not quite a tale of two cities. New London did not have a firm commitment from any potential builder before it proceeded with eminent domain, while developers of The Haven project in West Haven recently announced it has reached agreements with about 90 percent of property owners on the prospective site, including many who stand to receive well above the appraised value for their homes.

What's more, there seems little doubt that the project would substantially benefit West Haven, and city officials have endorsed a development that would create 800 full-time and 1,000 part-time jobs and generate more than $3 million in annual tax revenues.

Yet the idea of kicking people out of their homes to make room for private development rankles with many people and groups, including the Institute for Justice, the Washington-based organization that represented New London homeowners in their unsuccessful fight against eminent domain.

Brooke Fallon, an institute representative, urged the West Haven City Council Monday to abandon any thoughts of using eminent domain, saying government "should not force people out of their homes for private development."

She was among dozens of people who turned out for a meeting that, according to The New Haven Register, contained both proponents and opponents of the project.

The newspaper reported that Mayor Ed O'Brien, several city councilors and developers all said none of them favored eminent domain, but no action was taken on a request to remove authorization to use the condemnation procedure.

This newspaper acknowledges that eminent domain can be necessary when pushing forward such public works projects as new bridges or highways, but have second thoughts about property condemnation to benefit private development projects, even if they benefitted their host communities.

We urge city officials and developers promoting the West Haven project to resolve all their property issues through negotiation, not condemnation. Going the eminent domain route could lead to a long, divisive legal battle that might eventually be won in a court of law but lost in the court of public opinion, as happened in New London.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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