By Gregory N Stone
Susette Kelo and her neighbors aren't the only targets of eminent domain nervously awaiting the Supreme Court decision in the Fort Trumbull case.
The same matter happened to be on the mind of a stranger I met at random in JFK Airport last week. We struck up a conversation in one of the seating areas near the international arrival section of Terminal 4 while I was waiting for my wife to arrive on a flight and she waited for her son from Queens to pick her up. The woman told me she lived in Florida. She said life there was a blast, but she was thinking of moving. She said “they” were trying to take her condominium building. “They” were the city of Boyton Beach, near Palm Beach, in South Florida. The city had plans to acquire the building where she lived by eminent domain “to build bigger buildings that will bring in more taxes,” she told me.
“We're all watching this case in Connecticut,” she volunteered out of nowhere. I hadn't mentioned where I was from.
“You mean the Supreme Court case in New London?”
“I guess that's it. Have they done anything yet?” she asked.
I said they hadn't. The court is expected to hand down its ruling sometime this month.
“Well, there's a feeling that if they (the court) support the city, it will open the floodgates.”
A little research indicated the floodgates are already open. An Internet search using “Boynton Beach eminent domain” turned up hundreds of hits for lawyers specializing in eminent domain and topics dealing with condemnation proceedings by the city's Redevelopment Authority.
Boynton Beach is among coastal Florida communities that are using eminent domain powers to acquire real estate and transfer it to private developers to build luxury condominiums and shopping areas in choice waterfront locations, according to Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition. The coalition, named for the libertarian motto “A man's home is his castle,” is an advocacy group associated with the Institute for Justice, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that has been representing the Fort Trumbull plaintiffs in the New London case.
The coalition has produced a report documenting 10,000 instances of such “private to private” real estate transfers employing eminnent domain in 41 states between 1998 and 2002. Many of them are in coastal Florida, where communities are seeking to displace lower valued real estate with luxury developments to enhance their property-tax lists, Anderson said. In addition to Florida, California and New Jersey stand out for the volume of such cases.
Florida made the process even easier with new legislation that liberalizes the interpretation of blight, one of the conditions that enables municipalities to take property by eminent domain. Blight was the justification when New London used eminent domain to clear areas in the Winthrop and Shaw's Cove areas of the city in the 1960s. The Fort Trumbull case revolves around another constitutionally allowable purpose, of condemning property for public purposes. The Institute argues that securing land for private developers doesn't qualify as a legitimate public purpose.
The woman at JFK said her condominium building is occupied by retirees who purchased their homes for modest prices a number of years ago. But she said with real estate prices soaring, the land they sit on is more valuable than the buildings (and their occupants, I guess).
According to John Kramer, a spokesman for the Institute, this fits into the pattern by which cities are abusing eminent domain powers.
“It falls into the category of ‘the poor don't deserve a view,'” Kramer said, in which municipalities condemn land in middle-class and lower-middle-class neighborhoods to make way for high-density, luxury developments with much higher value, and where the former occupants couldn't afford to live.
He cited the case of a town near the ocean in northern New Jersey where immigrant families from New York built modest summer bungalows decades ago and where they eventually retired. He said the community, Long Beach, went after the property using eminent domain to turn it into an upscale neighborhood of “high density, high-dollar development.”
This sounds a lot like the neighborhood where Susette Kelo has one of the nicest views in New London from the kitchen of her home in Fort Trumbull, but maybe not for long if a majority of the Justices on the Supreme Court agree with the city that they require her land for a public purpose.
And the place Kramer described isn't unlike the development where the stranger I met at Kennedy Airport is standing in the way of progress in the condo she bought for $30,000 20 years ago.
When it comes to the interest in the Fort Trumbull case, it turns out to be a small world.
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