This Land is Your Land until Pfizer comes to town

13 Jan

UPDATE: On June 23, 2005, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the city of New London (Kelo v. New London), allowing local governments to seize people’s homes and businesses for private economic development. This decision has enormous implications for homeowners across the U.S.

Earlier in June, we spoke with New Londoner Matt Dery. Along with 100 other residents, Matt was fighting to keep his long-time home after he was told that he and his family would be forced out to make way for private development by the Pfizer Corporation. The city of New London claimed it was exercising the power of eminent domain.

Q: Matt, tell us what’s happening with your home. When did you first know there was a ‘situation’ and what’s been happening lately?

MD: Our odyssey began in January, 1998. There were rumors of a Fortune 500 company coming to New London to build on a Brownfield site just to the south of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. As it turned out, it was Pfizer that would build its Global Research and Development Headquarters there. Real estate agents were combing the neighborhood in packs, not unlike hyenas, trying to obtain options to purchase properties. It was clear that the neighborhood was in play.

Currently we are in the 8th year of our battle to save our homes. We continue to maintain and improve our properties. It was very difficult in the beginning, but at a point about one year into the ordeal, we made a conscious effort to reclaim our lives. We were living under someone else’s mandate, and that did not sit well with us. We had taken the attitude that if the houses were going to be razed, where was the sense in painting? We moved past those issues and in just the last couple of years, we’ve refinished our hardwood floors, installed a new ceramic tile floor in the family room, painted the entire first floor, etc. And if you are wondering- no, we have not looked at other properties in case we are forced from our current location.

Q: For people who may not know, can you give a little background on eminent domain?

MD: Eminent domain is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of the government. It may be second only to government’s power to take life: capital punishment. The power of eminent domain allows government to forcibly take ownership of property from private owners. However, the framers of the Constitution saw the potential for abuse, and limited the power of eminent domain with two caveats in the wording of the 5th Amendment. First, property taken using eminent domain must be for public use, and second, just compensation must be paid to the former owner.

Q: I know this is a controversial issue and you’re on one side of it. But what do you say to people who feel the economic benefit of the entire New London community is more important than a few homeowners being forced to move out of their homes?

MD: New London is a community of 26,000. The rights of the one are not trumped by the wants of 26,000 or for that matter, the wants of 26,000,000. The Constitution does not provide for the majority to exploit the minority. As a matter of fact, it is in place to protect against that kind of abuse. The inalienable rights that we all enjoy under the Constitution cannot be suspended for any reason.

Q: Doesn’t your family have a long history in the community?

MD: The homes that we now own were purchased by my great-grandmother, Maria Ballestrini, an immigrant from the northern Italian city of Fano in the Marche Province, in 1901. My mother was born in 1918 in the home in which she still resides. She is 87 years of age and has never lived anywhere else. She married my father in 1945, and they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at home in February. Three of their four children have predeceased them, leaving me as their only surviving child. All three of my siblings died on the property in question.
My grandmother gave my wife, Sue and me the house that we live in as an engagement present in 1984. It is the only home we’ve known as a married couple; the only home our son has known since he’s been on the planet. Houses can be replaced with relative ease. Homes may be irreplaceable.

Q: What are the possible scenarios that can come out of all this?

MD: I, the eternal optimist, would rather give you the best-case scenario first. The best end result would be that the Court finds that economic development is not a valid public use and restores and reaffirms the Constitutional guarantees that the Founding Fathers intentioned to be accorded to property rights. That is, eminent domain may only be used for a public use such as a road or a building that will be owned and used by the public; i.e. schools, firehouses, etc. That would ensure that the power of eminent domain could not be abused by the more powerful, and better politically connected to the detriment of the less powerful and less politically connected
The worst-case scenario would be that the Court upholds the Connecticut decision and opens the floodgates to rampant eminent domain abuse. If the Supreme Court validates the CT decision it will obliterate the public use clause of the 5th amendment. Then, any property can be taken from anybody for anything and would be justified under the Constitution.

Q: What’s it been like to have your home threatened?

MD: Emasculating. It is not only the homes, but also the people inside. I guess it goes to man’s roots as hunter and protector. For the most part, there is not a whole lot that I truly care about. However, when your entire family unit is under assault by an outside force, it really gets and holds your attention.

Q: Do you think what is happening to you & the other New London home-owners is part of a bigger trend that is happening in our country today?

MD: Absolutely. Between the years 1998 and 2003, over 10,000 properties were targeted for condemnation for economic development, according to a report by Dana Berliner, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. It will only get worse if the Supreme Court does not redefine the public use requirement. If a larger tax base can be justification for the use of eminent domain, then no property will ever be safe. Any business will pay more taxes than a home, and any larger business will generate more taxes than a small business. It will be a free-for-all with the richest, the most powerful, and the best-connected coming out on top at the expense of the less fortunate.

Related stories and links:

See what members of a community in Brooklyn, NY are doing in their own eminent domain struggle against private

Click here for all you ever wanted to know about eminent

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