In 1775, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull proposed a fortification at the port of New London, situated on the Thames River and overlooking Long Island Sound. The fort was completed two years later and named for Governor Trumbull. During the Revolution, Fort Trumbull was attacked and occupied by British forces, for a time commanded by the turncoat American General, Benedict Arnold.
By the early 20th century, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood consisted of 90 or so single and multi-family working class homes, situated on a peninsula along the fringes of a mostly industrialized city center.
In 1996, chemists working at Pfizer Corporation’s research facility in England were studying compound UK-92, 480 or “Sildenafil Citrate”, synthesized for the treatment of hypertension and heart disease resulting from a restriction in blood supply to heart tissues. Study subjects were expected to return unused medication at the end of the trial. Women showed no objection in doing so but a significant number of male subjects refused to give it back. It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. The chemical compound which would one day bear the name “Viagra”, was going to be put to a very different use.
For newly divorced paramedic Susette Kelo, the house overlooking the Fort Trumbull waterfront was the home of her dreams. Long abandoned and overgrown with vines, the little Victorian cottage needed a lot of work, but where else would she ever find a waterfront view at this asking price? It was 1997, about the same time that Connecticut and New London politicians resurrected the long-dormant New London Development Corporation (NLDC), charging it with developing a plan to revitalize the New London waterfront.
Susette Kelo sanded her floors on hands and knees, as Pfizer Corporation was looking at a cataract of business based on their newest chemical compound. The company was recruited to become the principal tenant in a “World Class” multi-use waterfront campus, including high-income housing, hotels, shopping and restaurants, all centered around a 750,000 sq. ft. corporate research facility. Connecticut College professor and NLDC President Dr. Claire Gaudiani liked to talk about her “hip” new development project. Fort Trumbull residents were convinced that stood for “High Income People”. With an average income of $22,500, that didn’t include themselves.
Most property owners agreed to sell, though not exactly “voluntarily”. There was considerable harassment of the reluctant ones, including late-night phone calls, waste dumped on property, and tenants locked out of apartments during cold winter weather.
Seven homeowners holding fifteen properties refused to sell, at any price. Wilhelmina Dery was in her eighties. She was born in her house and she wanted to die there. The Cristofaro family had lost another New London home in the ’70s, taken by eminent domain during yet another “urban renewal” program. They didn’t want to lose this one, too.
Susette Kelo came home from work the day before Thanksgiving 2000, to find an eviction notice taped to her door.
Letters were written to editors and rallies held, as NLDC and state officials literally began to bulldoze homes. Holdout property owners were left trying to prevent property damage from flying demolition debris.
Facing a prolonged legal battle which none of the homeowners could afford, the group got a boost when the Libertarian law firm Institute for Justice took their case pro bono. There was cause for hope. Retired homeowner Vera Coking had faced a similar fight against Now-President Donald Trump in 1993, when the developer and Atlantic City New Jersey authorities attempted to get her house condemned to build a limo lot.
Eminent domain exists for a purpose, but the most extreme care should be taken in its use. Plaintiffs argued that this was not a “public use”, but rather a private corporation using the power of government to take their homes for economic development, a violation of both the takings clause of the 5th amendment and the due process clause of the 14th.
Vera Coking won her case against Trump, the casino later failing and closing its doors. New London District Court, with Susette Kelo lead plaintiff, “split the baby”, ruling that 11 out of 15 takings were illegal and unconstitutional. At that point it wasn’t good enough for the seven homeowners. They had been through too much. All of them would stay, or they would all go.
Connecticut’s highest court reversed the decision, throwing out the baby AND the bathwater in a 3-4 decision. The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, argued before the seven justices then in attendance on February 22, 2005.
SCOTUS ruled in favor of New London in a 5-4 decision, Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer concurring. Seeing the decision as a reverse Robin Hood scheme that would steal from the poor to give to the rich, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms”. Clarence Thomas took an originalist view, stating that the majority opinion had confused “Public Use” with “Public Purpose”. “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution”, Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not”. Antonin Scalia concurred, seeing any tax advantage to the municipality as secondary to the taking itself.
In the end, most of the homes were destroyed or relocated. State and city governments spent $78 million and bulldozed 70 acres. The 3,169 new jobs and the $1.2 million in new tax revenue anticipated from the waterfront project, never materialized. Pfizer backed out of the project and moved away, taking 1,500 existing jobs with them. Just about the time when existing tax breaks were set to expire, raising the company’s tax bill by 400%.
The now-closed redevelopment area became a dumping ground for debris left by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Its only residents were feral cats.
In reaction to the Kelo v. City of New London decision, a group of New Hampshire residents proposed a hotel to be built on the site of Justice David Souter’s home in Weare, New Hampshire. Calling it the “Lost Liberty Motel”, an on-line petition was created to quantify the public benefit of the taking, generating at least 1,418 signatories committing to stay there at least a week. Supporters claimed to be serious, but the measure was defeated three to one in a ballot referendum. The two candidates for Selectman backing the measure, were both defeated.
To this day, New Hampshire license plates bear the slogan “Live Free or Die”. Those in Connecticut say “Constitution State”. In neither case is it at all clear, why.