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Group is planting fruit trees, vegetables on Fort Trumbull eminent domain land

New London — A loose-knit group of local activists with a rebellious streak announced last week that it had begun secretly planting apple trees and vegetables on city-owned land at Fort Trumbull.

It’s no coincidence the plantings are on land seized by eminent domain and at the center of the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo v. City of New London case. The ruling established that municipalities have a right to take private land by eminent domain for economic development.

The New London Mutual Aid Collective, as the group calls itself, took to social media to announce the plantings along with a fundraising campaign in order to be able to “distribute, and plant fruit trees in carefully selected locations around New London as well as have some available at our aid giveaway.”

The group installed signs last week announcing the Fort Trumbull Memorial Orchard on a vacant tract of land at Fort Trumbull. The signs were quickly removed. It was not immediately clear, however, who took them down.

One sign, posted on social media, read: “A gift to the people, reclaiming land stolen by corporate greed.” Several small fruit trees are visible from Walbach Street, partially camouflaged by the chest-high weeds and autumn olive prevalent in the field.

The Renaissance City Development Association, the city’s development arm, did not immediately issue a rebuke of the action.

RCDA President Linda Mariani, in an emailed response on Friday, said she understood “people's anger, frustration, and sadness over the Fort Trumbull debacle.”

“But no matter what our positions, it’s time to move forward for the betterment of our city. We need to work together with love and understanding. There’s too much nastiness and polarization in this country. New London is better than that,” she said.

She also alluded to the RCDA’s ongoing negotiations with two different developers who have announced ideas for a hotel and a cluster of residences on the property.

“I can only hope that the apple trees will very soon be adorning the yards of many happy Ft. Trumbull tenants and visitors,” Mariani said.

Hayward Gatch IV, co-founder of the New London Mutual Aid Collective, said in a phone interview that the project at Fort Trumbull follows work already being done by his group — handing out or planting fruits and vegetable plants throughout the city.

The group got its start about two years ago when members started appearing monthly at Parade Plaza, where they handed out clothes and food to anyone who asked. They have no permit to do so, but Gatch said the group was never about following the rules, only about “making life easier however possible,” for people living at the fringes.

He said the group claims about a dozen members, six core members, and even a member who goes by the nickname “Doc,” who makes the rounds for the homeless and renders basic first aid. He is not a doctor, Gatch said.

Inspiration for the plantings comes in part from a food forest created in Georgia where Gatch said there is a 7-acre public space being used for planting fruit trees and creation of a community garden where residents can pick their own produce for free.

Fresh New London has a series of free community gardens in New London.

“People say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, within the system, no. But I can take you for a walk in the woods and find you a free lunch,” Gatch said.

Gatch said there have been attempts at gardening at Fort Trumbull over the past few years, unbeknownst to anyone,  but with mixed results. He said he suspects there are “potatoes running wild, onions, strawberries and raspberries.”

“We thought it’d be a good spot for the orchard. What was once a barren neighborhood is a barren wasteland. We can reclaim the space and present it back and heal some of the collective damage and remaining resentment. It seems a way to bring some positivity to what remains a scar.”

New London resident Kat Goulart applauded the group's efforts, which she had followed online.

“I support the orchard wholeheartedly. This group is trying to remove the stain of eminent domain from New London and turn it into something positive," Goulart said.

“When Fort Trumbull was thrust into the national spotlight in the late '90's I was just in high school, and even at such a young age I knew it was wrong. Land strongarmed from property owners all in the name of economic development. Except that's not what happened, and while the world has moved on, we've failed to do what we set out to with the Fort Trumbull parcel, and so it was all for nothing.“

Kathleen Mitchell, a local activist who fought against eminent domain and backed efforts of Susette Kelo, the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case involving eminent domain, approved of the group’s statement.

“What the hell has happened down there? Nothing. It's been over 10 years. ... The city has nothing to show for it,” Mitchell said.

g.smith@theday.com

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