The Ghosts of Kelo Haunting West Haven

Over a decade ago, New London used eminent domain to bulldoze an entire neighborhood for “economic development.” The U.S. Supreme Court shocked the nation when it upheld the condemnations in Kelo v. New London. And it was all for nothing: Where more than 70 homes and businesses once stood, there is now empty land filled with weeds. The promised new homes and businesses were never built, and the Kelo decision is infamous.

Now, West Haven seems determined to make the same mistake that New London did.

Bob McGinnity and his elderly uncle live in two homes near the West Haven waterfront. The properties have been in the family for more than 50 years. Mr. McGinnity owns and lives in the house he grew up in, and his mother is part owner of the home next door where his uncle lives. Mr. McGinnity — a retired train conductor and Navy veteran — cares for his uncle, who recently suffered a debilitating stroke.

Mr. McGinnity and his uncle do not know where they will go if they lose their homes, but West Haven and a developer know exactly what they want to do: replace the properties with a strip mall.

In August, West Haven began the process of taking homes and businesses through eminent domain for the “Haven South” project. West Haven’s redevelopment plan calls for land to be acquired and then transferred to a private developer, The Haven Group, LLC. The plan calls for a large chunk of West Haven’s waterfront (currently devoted to mixed commercial and residential uses) to be turned into an outdoor shopping mall, though no tenants have yet been publicly identified.

Like New London, West Haven promises that the plan will create jobs and bring in revenue through property taxes, but it is not clear that the project will even be built. The developer has not secured its zoning permits, and rumors abound that the whole thing may be scrapped. West Haven is taking these properties not because it has something to build, but simply because it can.

Under the Connecticut and U.S. Constitutions, the government can use eminent domain to take property for a “public purpose,” like building roads or schools. But the Haven South project is a shopping mall, and handing property over to a specific developer is not a public purpose.

The developer does not even need Mr. McGinnity’s homes. They are on the edge of the project, and omitting them would only cost the plan a few stores. Mr. McGinnity has even offered to sell the back portions of his properties so that the project can move forward. But that is not enough for the town. Rather than slightly altering the plan, West Haven is trying to pave over well-kept, beloved family homes at the sole behest of the developer.

Mr. McGinnity and his family are far from the only Americans who face the threat of losing their property. West Haven’s flagrant abuse of power is part of a national resurgence of eminent domain. After Kelo, 44 states reformed their eminent domain laws to offer greater protections to property owners. Nine state supreme courts made it more difficult for the government to abuse eminent domain. But a decade after Kelo, cities and development agencies are trying to regain some of the power they lost.

Mr. McGinnity, his uncle and his mother have joined the Institute for Justice to fight West Haven’s land grab. IJ litigated Kelo on behalf of property owners in New London and has been at the forefront of fighting eminent domain abuse ever since. This case is an opportunity for the Connecticut and U.S. Supreme Courts to overturn Kelo and stop the resurgence of eminent domain abuse.

Kelo was not a blank check. Rather, Kelo taught the people of Connecticut that eminent domain abuse does not benefit anyone. The courts cannot let West Haven make the same mistake again.

The author is an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Mr. McGinnity and his family in their lawsuit to stop West Haven from taking their homes.

 

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