NEW LONDON, Conn. - They have still not moved out. Not Susette Kelo. Not the Derys. Not Byron Athenian or Bill Von Winkle or the others.
Five months after the United States Supreme Court set off a national
debate by ruling that the City of New London could seize their property
through eminent domain to make way for new private development, no one has been forced to leave.
No bulldozers have arrived to level the last houses still standing, and none are expected soon.
Even though the holdouts lost their case, and the development that
would displace them finally seems free to go forward,
construction has not begun, and some elements of the project have been effectively paralyzed since the court ruling prompted
a political outcry.
"I felt relaxed enough to get my checkbook out and put the new roof
on," said Mr. Von Winkle, who owns three buildings with
a total of 12 occupied apartments in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood by the Thames River, where the city was sued for
claiming 15 properties through eminent domain.
Ms. Kelo, also among the handful of holdouts, said, "We still have hope that we'll get to keep our homes."
It is not that Ms. Kelo and the others have chained themselves to their property in a final dramatic defiance of the law.
Instead, wary of public disapproval and challenges from groups like
the Institute for Justice, the law firm that represented
the holdouts in court, the state and the city have halted plans to evict the remaining residents. Investors are concerned
about building on land that some people consider a symbol of property rights. At the same time, contract disputes and
financial uncertainty have delayed construction even in areas that have been cleared.
With so many complications, some people are unsure whether the city's
initial vision for the property - a mix of housing,
hotel and office space intended to transform part of its riverfront and bolster a declining tax base - is even realistic anymore.
"Winning took so long," said Mayor Jane L. Glover, "that the plan may not be as viable in 2005 or 2006 or 2007."
New London, founded in the 17th century as a port city in
Connecticut, has a high unemployment rate and
fewer residents today than it had in 1920. Its court battle over eminent domain started five years ago, when it claimed the
property of six Fort Trumbull homeowners, a two-block area within 90 acres set for development. Homeowners challenged
the move, and the matter eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5 to 4 in June that the city had the
right to take the land to improve its financial health, even though doing so would eventually transfer the property to a
But in a dissent that echoed what property rights activists were
Sandra Day O'Connor wrote: "The specter of
condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home
with a shopping mall or any farm with a factory."
Congress and state legislatures across the country have reacted by
revisiting eminent domain laws. Over the summer, the
United States House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the court decision. This month, the House voted
overwhelmingly to deny federal economic development money for two years to local governments that seize private property for
In September, Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut demanded that the New
London Development Corporation, the city's development
agency, rescind eviction orders delivered to tenants in rental units that belong to homeowners who have refused to give up their
The Connecticut General Assembly has asked cities to delay using
eminent domain while it considers revising state law. Some
city and state officials cite the difficulty in finding a balance between using eminent domain to rebuild blighted areas and preventing
the potential for abuse that concerned Justice O'Connor.
"We're not writing a law to solve the New London problem," said State
Representative Michael P. Lawlor, a Democrat who is
co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "We're writing a law to fix the Sandra Day O'Connor problem."
Amid all the debate, the Fort Trumbull project has stalled.