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Property Owners Fight to Keep Their Land

Bitter disputes play out nationwide as cities seeking to improve their economies condemn homes and businesses for private development.

May 11, 2003|Connie Cass | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — The first time the city of New London, Conn., seized Pasquale Cristofaro's home, it was to make way for a sea wall that never materialized. Instead, private medical offices sprouted over the backyard plot where Cristofaro once grew tomatoes, squash and grapes.

Three decades later, when the city wanted to raze another Cristofaro family home to clear the way for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices, the 77-year-old Italian immigrant dug in and fought back in court.

"When they came to take my house from me a second time, I feel sick," said Cristofaro, whose grandchildren now live in the home he bought in 1972. "It's not right, to take it for a business. The United States of America is supposed to stop this."

Bitter disputes are playing out nationwide as city leaders eager to improve their economies condemn homes and small businesses -- not for highways, airports or other public projects, but for private development.

Local planners struggling to rejuvenate their downtowns or aging suburbs say that sometimes the public good outweighs the property rights of individuals.

"The urban centers of this country need help," said Thomas Londregan, New London's director of law.

How many homes and businesses are condemned to make way for private development each year is unknown because states don't keep records. However, the Washington-based Institute for Justice studied media reports and court cases from the last five years and found more than 3,700 of these condemnation actions and more than 6,500 properties threatened with condemnation for private development.

The cases were spread throughout the nation, with the highest numbers in California, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio.

"If it can happen to these 10,000 homes and businesses, it can happen to anybody," said Dana Berliner, the institute's senior attorney. "Almost any home in the country would produce more tax money and more jobs if it was a Costco."

The institute's attorneys, who represent Cristofaro and other home and business owners fighting such actions, believe thousands more condemnations for private development aren't publicly reported.

The Constitution says that so long as owners receive just compensation, private property can be taken for "public use." In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that this includes plans that serve a "public purpose," even if the land ends up in private hands.

At first, governments targeted slums for redevelopment.

"Now they take areas that are in pretty good shape that a developer would want -- good, solid, safe areas near the highway or with a beautiful view," Berliner said.

Local planners say property seizures can lead to new businesses that add jobs and boost tax revenue that pays for local services.

New London officials, buoyed by $80 million in state aid, envision replacing a stagnant working-class enclave with commercial development that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and proposed Coast Guard museum. Most of the Victorian-era houses have already been bulldozed, but holdouts like Cristofaro are fighting to stay.

"What really is involved is conflicting dreams," Superior Court Judge Thomas Corradino wrote in deciding the lawsuit.

Corradino upheld the city's right to pursue its dream of a bustling riverfront, but said plans for some of the lots were too vague to justify taking them yet. The Connecticut Supreme Court heard appeals from both sides, and its decision is pending.

The institute has scored some victories. A Mississippi family stopped the state's attempt to seize their land for a Nissan auto plant. An Atlantic City, N.J., widow fought off plans to turn her home into limousine parking for Donald Trump's casino.

In Pittsburgh, public outcry defeated a plan to tear down historic buildings and oust 125 small businesses so that national retail and restaurant chains could move into the ailing downtown.

Juan Otero, an attorney with the National League of Cities, said government authority to wield eminent domain varies widely under different state and local rules, and it usually is used judiciously.

"As an economic development tool, it's probably one of the things cities like to do least because of the implications for property owners," Otero said. "It is not a land grab."

But people whose dreams for their land are thwarted often end up feeling abused.

"They say they want to develop this property. That's what we wanted to do, to develop this property," said the Rev. Fred Jenkins, whose North Hempstead, N.Y., congregation needed a permanent home and thought that its prayers were answered when they bought an unfinished church for $130,000.

The property was condemned as part of North Hempstead's "smart growth" plan to revive the flagging prospects of Prospect Avenue. The church was allotted $80,000 in compensation, but church officials are seeking more to cover their losses.

"All of a sudden -- boom! -- you've got an eminent domain on you," said Jenkins, whose congregation meets in a rented basement. "It's like somebody with a gun saying, 'Stick 'em up!' "

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