Revitalization Projects Hinge On Eminent-Domain Lawsuit

Susette Kelo's home in New London, Conn., is dwarfed by the new Pfizer complex. She says the city's plan to take her property for a private development is unconstitutional.
Susette Kelo's home in New London, Conn., is dwarfed by the new Pfizer complex. She says the city's plan to take her property for a private development is unconstitutional. (By Tim Martin -- The Day)
By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

NEW LONDON, Conn. -- Seven years after a real estate agent came knocking at her door to tell her that her house was being condemned by the city to make way for a luxury hotel and office complex, Susette Kelo, a 48-year-old nurse, is still seething with rage.

Perched stiffly at the kitchen table of the cozy Victorian cottage she refurbished "from the concrete in the basement to the shingles on the roof," Kelo pours out the story of how she has fought the city and state, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court. "I don't like to be pushed around," she said.

Now one woman's anger and determination may affect urban revitalization projects all over the country. She and her backers say the government has overstepped; those on the other side say such actions are needed for the public good.

Kelo's lawsuit, filed with eight neighbors and financed by the libertarian advocacy group Institute for Justice, alleges that New London's plan to redevelop the waterfront area where Kelo lives is unconstitutional because the government wants to take her land for private redevelopment, not public use as the Fifth Amendment permits.

While the Constitution grants governments the power to take land for public use, it specifies only that owners be given "just compensation" for their loss. Through the years, the people on the losing end of the arrangement have disliked it; the people deciding what needs to be taken have defended it.

There is little dispute over many kinds of public land use, such as that for schools, roads and water-treatment plants. In the past five decades, however, municipalities have expanded the interpretation of "public use" to include revitalizing dilapidated downtowns, removing urban blight and boosting tourism and tax revenue.

In the Washington area, the power of eminent domain, or the threat of it, was used to spiff up Pennsylvania Avenue and to build the Metro system and the development parcels around its stations. The District hopes to redevelop a down-at-the-heels cluster of stores in Southeast Washington known as the Skyland Shopping Center into a more upscale shopping complex, and if the 16 property owners there don't agree to sell their land to the city voluntarily, city officials say they will take the land through eminent domain. That plan could die if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Kelo.

City officials around the nation are watching uneasily as the Supreme Court deliberates. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who is president of the National League of Cities, said he is worried that the case could interfere with "the critical need of cities to use this tool -- reluctantly -- for public purpose and benefits."

Williams said the success of the Kelo lawsuit represents the growing political strength of what he views as radical property-rights activists.

"Some of these people wouldn't use eminent domain to build a highway or a railroad," Williams said.

The Institute for Justice says it accepts the use of eminent domain for roads, schools and parks and opposes it for privately owned, for-profit operations. Lawyers there say they have taken Kelo's case because they think it represents a classic case of excessive use of government power. "It's an unholy marriage between land-hungry developers and tax-hungry local governments," said John E. Kramer, an institute spokesman. Institute officials say they found 10,282 incidents of filed or threatened condemnation procedures in which land was given to private, for-profit parties, such as Target or Costco stores or casino parking lots, between Jan. 1, 1998, and Dec. 31, 2002.

The Kelo case arose when New London, an old and scruffy city seeking to jump-start its economy, turned to urban redevelopment. Once a whaling center second only to New Bedford, Mass., and then a shipping and manufacturing hub, New London has slowly lost its industrial and commercial base.

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