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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Eminent disaster

Homeowners in Connecticut town were dispossessed for nothing

A 2005 photo shows Susette Kelo’s house near foundations from recently destroyed homes. Kelo’s home was eventually relocated.

getty images

A 2005 photo shows Susette Kelo’s house near foundations from recently destroyed homes. Kelo’s home was eventually relocated.

Nearly nine years have elapsed since the US Supreme Court, in one of its most notorious rulings, decided that seven homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Conn., had no property rights which City Hall was bound to respect. Today Fort Trumbull is a wasteland, as a detailed new report confirms.

The court’s 5-4 holding in Kelo v. City of New London gave local officials a green light to seize and demolish private homes through eminent domain, then turn the land over to developers itching to build something more lucrative. In Fort Trumbull, those private homeowners included people such as Susette Kelo, a local nurse who bought her little Victorian cottage on the Thames River because she loved its waterfront view; Wilhelmina Dery, who was born in her house on Walbach Street in 1918 and had been living there all her life; and Pasquale and Margherita Cristofaro, whose home on Goshen Street was the second New London property they lost to eminent domain, the first having been taken 30 years earlier because the city intended to construct a seawall. (The seawall was never built.)

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Their homes, like those of their neighbors, were targeted by Pfizer. The pharmaceutical giant was building a major research facility nearby and wanted city officials to pave the way for a “world-class redevelopment” that would appeal to the business leaders, scientists, and other professionals the new headquarters was expected to attract. “Pfizer wants a nice place to operate,” a supercilious executive said in 2001. “We don’t want to be surrounded by tenements.”

The Fifth Amendment’s “takings clause” authorizes eminent-domain takings, but only when property is needed “for public use” — for example, to build a post office or widen a road. Fort Trumbull’s homeowners argued all the way up to the Supreme Court that their homes weren’t being seized for “public use” but for private use. Under the Constitution, they insisted, the city had no right to forcibly transfer their property to a private developer in the hope that new development would yield higher tax revenues or new jobs.

But five justices — John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy — decided otherwise. With their imprimatur, New London confiscated the modest but well-cared-for homes of Fort Trumbull. The last remaining owners were forced out. The bulldozers moved in. The land was cleared for the kind of upscale redevelopment that Pfizer and its political allies in New London craved: a posh hotel, a conference center, a condominium complex, a health club, and high-end shops.

And how did it all end up?

When journalist Charlotte Allen went recently to New London to find out, what she found, as she reported in The Weekly Standard, was “a vast, empty field — 90 acres — that was entirely uninhabited and looked as though it had always been that way.” There is no hotel, no health club, no condos. The neighborhood that for generations had been home to working-class families like the Derys and Cristofaros is now a “deserted incline,” where the only signs of life are “waist-high dead weeds.”

The homeowners were dispossessed for nothing. Fort Trumbull was never redeveloped. Pfizer itself bailed out of New London in 2009. The Kelo decision was a disaster, as even the city’s present political leaders acknowledge. Allen writes that the current mayor, who was elected in 2011, has formally apologized to the Kelo plaintiffs, calling the decision a “black stain” on New London’s reputation. City officials agreed to install a plaque on the heights above the Thames in memory of Margherita Cristofaro, who died during the long legal battle. It notes that she and her family “made significant contributions to the Italian-American community, sacrificing two family homes to the eminent domain process.”

If anything good came of Kelo, it was the furious nationwide backlash, which led a number of states — Massachusetts, unfortunately, not among them — to pass new laws protecting property owners from abusive eminent-domain takings. But such still happens, and will go on happening until Kelo is overruled.

The founders put the takings clause in the Bill of Rights for a reason. The desolation that is Fort Trumbull is a grim reminder that where property rights aren’t secure, neither is freedom — and without freedom, there is nothing the government can’t destroy.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.

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