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Eminent Domain Plaintiff Will Keep Her House

However, under a settlement between New London, Conn., and the suit's namesake, the structure will be moved.

July 01, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Susette Kelo, who lent her name to a lawsuit that ignited a firestorm around the practice of eminent domain, will not lose her Connecticut home to a wrecking ball, as she had feared when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London could build homes, offices and hotels in her neighborhood.

Under an agreement announced Friday, Kelo's quaint, peach-colored house will be moved to another location. Kelo, 49, can remain in the 19th-century cottage at its present waterfront location for as long as a year, until a new site is selected.

No financial details were released on the transaction that was weeks in the making.

"I am not happy about giving up my property, but I am very glad that my home, which means so much to me, will not be demolished and I will remain living in it," Kelo said Friday.

In the waterfront district of Fort Trumbull, Kelo and fellow homeowner Pasquale Cristofaro were the last plaintiffs in the landmark case of Kelo vs. City of New London to reach an accord with the city. The Cristofaro home will be razed, but the family will be able to buy a new home in the area at an undisclosed fixed price.

The case pitted seven property owners in a working-class area close to where the Thames River flows into Long Island Sound against state and local officials who wanted to revitalize the area with a commercial project. The goals were to generate more tax revenue and expand employment opportunities in the tired old city.

In a 5-4 decision last June, the Supreme Court gave governments the right to seize private property and transfer it to another private owner in the interest of economic development.

Specifically, the court held that the use of eminent domain for economic development was not in conflict with the public-use clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

The expanded interpretation of the ancient practice known as eminent domain prompted legislators in nearly every state to draft measures to protect owners of private property. Eminent domain usually had been employed when governments wanted to build highways, bridges or public buildings -- not office parks, restaurants, town houses, shops and hotels, as have been proposed for the site.

The court's action also produced a flood of new commercial proposals around the country, as developers sought to turn the decision to their benefit.

Last week, on the first anniversary of the Kelo ruling, President Bush issued an executive order barring federal agencies from seizing private property except for public projects such as hospitals or roads.

In New London, only Kelo and the Cristofaros refused to settle when the city put forth a May 31 eviction deadline. Finally Gov. M. Jodi Rell intervened.

"Now these families can have some closure, and the Fort Trumbull economic development project will go forward without delay," the Republican governor said Friday.

Attorney Scott Bullock of the nonprofit Institute for Justice, based in Washington, represented the plaintiffs. Bullock noted that the Kelo and Cristofaro properties were among a tiny handful of structures that remained in Fort Trumbull.

"It is a demolition zone now, not a residential area anymore," Bullock said Friday.

The small house that Kelo renovated by hand has become a symbol for the eminent domain debate, Bullock said, launching what he called "a grass-roots revolution" across the country.

"The fact that she can remain in it, and the fact that the home will remain standing, is a wonderful symbol of her struggle and the fight for homeowners' rights across the country," he said.

As part of the settlement, city officials also agreed to install a plaque in Fort Trumbull honoring family matriarch Margherita Cristofaro, who died at 73 while the case was pending.

"I am not happy. I am far from happy. What I wanted was to keep the house," said Michael Cristofaro, one of Pasquale's sons. "But we need to put a close to this, and the time was right."

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