System worked in wake of historic Kelo ruling

Few U.S. Supreme Court decisions have attracted more instantaneous and widespread condemnation than the ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London, handed down 10 years ago this week.

Yet, ultimately, our system of checks and balances worked. The Supreme Court set the constitutional standard, then state legislatures and local councils enacted laws to prevent government abuse of the latitude provided by the ruling.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution implicitly recognizes that in some instances the government will take “private property … for public use” but requires “just compensation.”

In Kelo, the question was whether New London’s Municipal Development Plan to revitalize the Fort Trumbull area and expand the tax base of a fiscally struggling city amounted to a “public use” and so met the constitutional threshold for seizing private land.

With its 5-4 ruling, the court made the right decision in finding that the promotion of economic development is indeed a public use, if undertaken as part of a plan that provides public benefits that go beyond the “incidental or pretextual.” In other words, the government cannot seize one person’s property and turn it over to another using a false or contrived rationale.

If the Supreme Court had found such property takings for redevelopment wholly unconstitutional, it would have stripped urban communities of a sometimes necessary tool to improve their fortunes, albeit a tool that should be used rarely, compassionately and judiciously.

Making sure there are constraints on eminent domain is exactly what happened in the wake of the Kelo decision. According to the Institute for Justice, which represented the Fort Trumbull residents in their fight to save their homes, 47 states have instituted laws providing for additional safeguards, constraints and, in some cases, prohibitions, concerning the taking of private property for projects involving alternative private development.

Unfortunately, humanity can sometimes be lost in debating the nuances of constitutional law. What made Kelo so identifiable for so many, and led to that national movement to prevent abuse of eminent domain, is that the families and individuals who fought to remain in their homes and businesses were folks to which any working-class person could relate. It seemed so unfair.

And, arguably, it was. Mistakes were made. Those hell-bent on redevelopment never seriously considered options for trying to work with and around the homeowners. The New London Development Corp. dealt with the homeowners as an impediment instead of as people.

Our editorial written in the wake of the Kelo decision 10 years ago called for “closure” and expressed the hope of avoiding “enduring bitter feelings” tied to the long, nasty land dispute.

“Closure also means the city can proceed with its plans for Fort Trumbull, so that something good emerges from these unfortunate circumstances,” we stated.

In retrospect, it was naïve to imagine bitterness would not result and linger. People were hurt. The emotional wounds remain. Our expectation of the city proceeding with its plans certainly proved overly optimistic. A Great Recession and real estate market collapse intervened.

But the area remains primed for development. It has new roads and sidewalks, streetlamps, sewers and improved drainage. The brownfields associated with former industrial and defense research activities are largely cleaned up. The views of the Thames River south to Long Island Sound, and of Fort Trumbull State Park, are spectacular.

Pfizer Inc. built its $300 million global headquarters adjacent to the Fort Trumbull area, which now serves as the offices for thousands of Electric Boat workers.

The Municipal Development Plan, updated and supported by the Yale Urban Design Workshop study, remains ready to serve as a blueprint.

The promise and potential remain. It is up to today’s leaders to seize the opportunity. As noted by the headline of our editorial a decade ago, “It’s time to move ahead.”

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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