'Little Pink House' movie revives eminent domain fight that put New London on national stage

The Fort Trumbull peninsula in New London is seen from the air April 25, 2014. Today, much of the area remains empty after the city, using eminent domain, took over homes and tore them down to make way for proposed development that has yet to materialize.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The Fort Trumbull peninsula in New London is seen from the air April 25, 2014. Today, much of the area remains empty after the city, using eminent domain, took over homes and tore them down to make way for proposed development that has yet to materialize. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — A small plaque affixed to a stone on a grassy patch on the waterfront on the Fort Trumbull peninsula stands as the lone physical reminder of the cluster of homes and businesses that once sat there.

The plaque is dedicated to Margherita Cristofaro, an Italian immigrant who moved to New London in 1962 and whose family was twice forced by eminent domain to give up a family home because it stood in the way of so-called progress. She died in 2003.

“This plaque stands in her honor and in recognition of the struggle she and her neighbors undertook to save the Fort Trumbull Neighborhood and change laws around eminent domain,” the inscription reads, in part.

Most of the public may not be aware of the marker but the story of the use of eminent domain by the city of New London, and the handful of families and business owners who held out and fought to save their properties, has become a national story that is being revived with the movie adaptation of Jeff Benedict’s book, "Little Pink House," now showing across the region.

Both the book and the movie focus on Susette Kelo, who joined with a handful of holdouts who refused to sell their properties that stood in the way of a redevelopment plan connected to the construction of a $300 million Pfizer facility.

The fight led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London, an appeal by homeowners of a state Supreme Court case that would have allowed the saving of some, but not all, of the remaining homes.  

The city ultimately prevailed in 2005 with a 5-4 court decision that upheld the use of eminent domain and the taking of private land for public use, or a public purpose — in this case the revitalization of the area. Public opinion, however, had shifted in favor of the holdouts who ultimately were forced to sell their properties to make way for a state-funded development plan on the 90-acre peninsula. The case reverberated nationally and dozens of states moved to create or strengthen their eminent domain laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision and what was widely viewed as an injustice.

“It was a Pyrrhic victory. The city may have won the court case but lost in the court of public opinion,” said current New London Mayor Michael Passero.

Passero, a lawyer and city firefighter, was not involved in city politics at the time but since taking office in 2015 has ensured a close working relationship with the Renaissance City Development Association, the renamed development arm of the city that has succeeded the New London Development Corporation.

It was the NLDC that had championed the Municipal Development Plan designed to replace the existing businesses and homes near the former Pfizer complex with a hotel, conference center, marina, condominiums, offices and other tax-contributing and job-creating entities.

Pfizer leaves the city

The infusion of money offered by the state, about $70 million, also helped to relocate a scrap metal business, modernize the city’s malodorous sewer treatment plant, install utilities and provide a partial environmental cleanup of the site.

But despite the money spent, the area has yet to be developed — a fact many officials blamed on the downturn in the economy during the drawn-out legal battle. Officials now say the inactivity is in part due to a pending lawsuit that has tied up a portion of the property.

Pfizer eventually fled the city when its tax abatements ran out and its offices are now occupied by Electric Boat, a company widely viewed as the newest savior for the city because of the influx of employees.

While he can relate to the desire to bring prosperity to the city, Passero said, “the NLCD was arrogant in the way they dealt with the few people holding out.”

“I think they should have creatively found a way to help those people keep their homes,” Passero said.

As far as the movie, Passero said Hollywood has taken a complicated story and in some ways unfairly boiled it down to create heroes and villains — the villains being then-Gov. John Rowland and Claire Gaudiani, then the president of Connecticut College and director of the NLDC.

Disorderly conduct arrests

For those more intimately involved in the fight, the movie has stirred up memories of a contentious time that divided many in the city.

Lloyd Beachy, the lone member of the City Council to vote against the NLDC’s redevelopment plan in 2000, said he understood but did not agree with the reasoning of his fellow councilors.

“At the time, it looked like a wondrous gift to the city,” Beachy said. “Pfizer with its $300 million. Plans for a hotel. No one could raise any money to do anything down there and here Governor (John) Rowland was offering $90 million — none of which made sense.”

Beachy, who was a member of the Coalition to Save Fort Trumbull, conducted prayer walks every Friday morning in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

“We showed we cared who was still there. We would stop in front of each house to say a brief prayer. Those memories all come back,” he said of the movie.

Beachy and his wife, Sandra, along with community activist Kathleen Mitchell, were at one point arrested on disorderly conduct charges for an act of civil disobedience when they parked themselves on the stoop of 12 East St. as an excavator started tearing down the home. The Beachys were carried to a police cruiser.

“It was an interesting study in community dynamics,” Beachy recalls. “Most of the people in town I would say were in favor of it initially. There was an intense, vociferous, loud group of people that said, 'This is not right; you shouldn’t be taking people’s homes.'”

Of the more than 90 property owners in the area, seven property owners, with 15 properties, had remained at that time.

Mitchell, an activist and community organizer opposed to the redevelopment from the start, recalls a frantic early morning call from Kelo in 1998 when it became clear to Kelo her pink cottage was under threat.

“She said Pfizer is coming to town and they’re going to take my property and the houses of my neighbors,” Mitchell said. “I said, ‘We’ll see about that.' I honest to God thought we’ll have a couple neighborhood cleanups, get some publicity and that will be the end of it. Oh, how we were wrong.’”

Mitchell, who served as Kelo’s spokeswoman through the fight, said, “it was a terrible time for everybody. It was tearing the whole town apart.”

Mitchell planned to attend a screening of the movie on Saturday but already knows that, unlike the book, she is not portrayed in the movie.

'Leave us alone'

Rich Beyer, a building contractor who co-owned two rental properties, one under renovation, in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, was among the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case.

“New London County was in a bad spot, coming out of a recession,” Beyer said. “There were no jobs. The fact that Pfizer was coming to New London was like a party for these state officials. We begged them to leave us alone. Fort Trumbull wasn’t even needed for the Pfizer development.”

Beyer said the NLDC used bullying tactics to threaten people and force homeowners to sell, moving to condemn the homes of the holdouts in the case. It all was happening, he said, as the state funneled millions of dollars to the area to fund ideas that never came to fruition.  

“This was a rough time for us,” Beyer said. “I think, in my opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court decision sets the stage for us to start losing our constitutional rights.”

RCDA Executive Director Peter Davis, now charged with marketing the property that was the focus of the eminent domain case, said he watched from afar as the drama played out. He said the past should not taint what the city is now trying to do with the property.

“The history is what it is,” Davis said. “Why hide from it? Shift the paradigm and move on.”

The land, despite the millions in state funds spent to clean up the property and prepare it for what proponents had figured would be an economic shot in the arm for the tax-starved city, still is being marketed.

Kelo, whose iconic pink house was disassembled and rebuilt on Franklin Street, said in a curt phone interview on Friday she does not consider herself to be the central figure in the "Little Pink House" story.

“It’s a story about people trying to save their homes. It has nothing to do with me," she said. "I just hope people realize what happened here. I hope people’s attitudes about it have changed not just here ... but across the world.”

g.smith@theday.com

Catherine Keener stars as Susette Kelo in 'Little Pink House.' (Contributed)
Catherine Keener stars as Susette Kelo in "Little Pink House." (Contributed)
Fort Trumbull State Park and the surrounding neighborhood in New London are seen from the air on May 11, 2005, the same year as the landmark Kelo v. New London Supreme Court case ruling that upheld the city's use of eminent domain to take over and tear down homes in the area. It looks much the same today, as proposed developments there over the years have not yet come to fruition.  (Sean D. Elliot/photo)
Fort Trumbull State Park and the surrounding neighborhood in New London are seen from the air on May 11, 2005, the same year as the landmark Kelo v. New London Supreme Court case ruling that upheld the city's use of eminent domain to take over and tear down homes in the area. It looks much the same today, as proposed developments there over the years have not yet come to fruition. (Sean D. Elliot/photo)

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments