Kelo Vs. City Of New London: A Case Of Eminent Domain Abuse

Kelo Vs. City Of New London: A Case Of Eminent Domain Abuse

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In 2005, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark case that many felt exemplified an outright abuse of the eminent domain clause in the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. No other case has caused such outrage about the abuse of eminent domain.

The Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London has brought to light significant issues with eminent domain laws and their potential for abuse. Susette Kelo and her neighbors were forcibly removed from their properties under the pretext of eminent domain for private development, a development that ultimately did not occur for many years. This case exemplifies the misuse of eminent domain powers and the devastating consequences for property owners. The Kelo decision has become a cautionary tale, demonstrating how eminent domain can be exploited, leading to unwarranted property seizures and long-term community disruption.

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Backstory Of Susette Kelo’s Property And The Fight

Susette Kelo had long dreamed of owning a home with a view of the water. 1997 she achieved that dream by purchasing and lovingly restoring a quaint pink Victorian house where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound.

As a registered nurse, Susette took great pride in her home on East Street in Fort Trumbull, where she could see Montauk Point on clear days.

When she first purchased the property, it was so overgrown with weeds that she needed a hatchet to reach the front door. Undeterred, Susette and her husband Tim transformed the house into a charming showpiece.

However, their happiness was disrupted when, the day before Thanksgiving in 2000, they received a notice from the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) informing them that they would have to vacate their home by March 2001 or face forcible removal by the police.

The situation worsened for the Kelo family when Tim was nearly killed in a car accident less than two years later. He had to relearn essential functions like walking and talking, leaving Susette to care for him while working two nursing jobs.

Despite these hardships, their beloved pink cottage, a national symbol of the fight against eminent domain abuse, was eventually relocated and spared from demolition.

Susette Kelo's home stands alone in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jack Sauer)
Susette Kelo’s home stands alone in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jack Sauer)

The Impact On The Entire Fort Trumbull Community

The Kelo family was not alone in their plight. The Dery family, who had lived in Fort Trumbull since 1895, faced a similar fate.

Matt Dery and his family lived next door to his parents, and his mother, born in their house in 1918, had never lived anywhere else. The neighborhood was a vibrant community that embodied the American dream of homeownership.

However, the City of New London had other plans. In 1998, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer built a plant adjacent to Fort Trumbull. The city decided that the land could be better used than occupied by its current residents.

To facilitate this, New London handed its power of eminent domain to the NLDC, a private entity, to take over the entire neighborhood for private development.

The Supreme Court Decision

Kelo Vs. City Of New London
Kelo Vs. City Of New London

The Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London shocked many. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the city’s action to transfer land from one private owner to another private entity for economic development constituted a permissible “public use” under the Fifth Amendment.

This broad interpretation of “public use” sparked outrage and concern about the potential to abuse eminent domain powers.

The ruling underscored the vulnerability of homeowners when private entities wield governmental power to justify property seizures under the ambiguous banner of “economic development.”

The decision highlighted a critical loophole in the protections offered by the Fifth Amendment, raising concerns that similar abuses could occur elsewhere, with private interests prioritized over individual property rights.

The aftermath of the Kelo decision had significant legal and social implications. Many Americans were alarmed by the prospect of losing their homes to private developers under the guise of public benefit.

The backlash led to widespread calls for legislative reforms to protect property owners from such abuses.

In response, several states enacted laws to limit the scope of eminent domain. These reforms ensured that private property could only be taken for public uses, such as roads or schools, and not for private economic development projects.

Despite these efforts, the legacy of the Kelo decision continues to influence debates on property rights and eminent domain.

Case Study: The Kelo House Today

Susette Kelo’s pink house, which survived the bulldozer, symbolizes resistance against eminent domain abuse. Relocated to a new site, it now serves as a museum and a testament to the ongoing struggle for property rights.

The story of Susette Kelo and her neighbors poignantly reminds us of the personal toll that eminent domain can take on individuals and communities.

The Current State Of The Property

The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London highlights a tragic irony: the neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for new development remained vacant and overgrown for over two decades.

The private developers failed to proceed with their plans despite the court’s decision allowing the city to seize and demolish homes for economic development. As a result, the land where Susette Kelo’s house and others once stood lay barren, serving as a stark reminder of the ruling’s senselessness.

Until Recently, The Property Stood Undeveloped and Overgrown

The property stood untouched for years, a ghostly expanse of vacant lots overtaken by weeds.

This prolonged period of neglect underscores the futility of the entire court decision and the devastating impact on the former residents of Fort Trumbull. Their homes were destroyed, and their community was dismantled, all for a development that never materialized.

More than twenty years later, a new developer has only recently begun to take an interest in the land. Efforts to finally develop the property are underway, but the damage to the original community cannot be undone.

The property will be developed not for public use but for the private development of high-rise apartment buildings. Many argue that this use was not within the public domain or for the “good of the public.”

The delayed development also serves as a poignant example of the consequences of eminent domain misuse and the need for stricter safeguards to protect property owners from such unjust outcomes.

The vacant land where vibrant homes and a tight-knit community once thrived is a sad testament to the flaws in the system that allowed this to happen. It reminds us that property rights and the human stories behind them must be given more significant consideration to prevent such needless destruction in the future.

The Little Pink House
The Little Pink House

Lessons Learned From Kelo vs. City Of New London

The Kelo case offers several important lessons about the balance between public needs and private property rights:

Clear Definitions Of Public Use:

The case underscores the necessity for clear and stringent definitions of “public use.” Ambiguities in the law can lead to misuse of eminent domain powers, as seen in New London.

Protecting Vulnerable Communities:

The ruling highlighted the importance of safeguarding vulnerable communities from displacement. When economic development is prioritized over the welfare of residents, the social fabric of neighborhoods can be irreparably damaged.

The Role Of Legislative Oversight:

The backlash to the Kelo decision demonstrated the crucial role of legislative bodies in overseeing and restricting the use of eminent domain. Post-Kelo reforms in various states illustrate how legislative action can restore balance and protect property owners.

Public Awareness And Advocacy:

The public outcry following the Kelo decision showed the power of civic engagement and advocacy. Awareness campaigns and legal challenges are vital in defending property rights and influencing policy changes.

Backlash To The Kelo Decision

Fortunately, the ruling in Kelo v. City of New London sparked an unprecedented bipartisan backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision, leading to significant reforms across the United States. In the wake of this controversial ruling:

47 States Strengthened Eminent Domain Laws:

Most states enacted laws tightening the conditions under which eminent domain can be used, ensuring more excellent protection for property owners.

Constitutional Amendments:

Twelve states took the additional step of amending their state constitutions to explicitly prohibit the use of eminent domain for private gain, safeguarding against future abuses.

Judicial Rejection:

Eleven state supreme courts have either strengthened protections for property owners or outright rejected the principles outlined in the Kelo decision, reaffirming the need to prioritize individual property rights.

Community Organizing And Activism:

Organizations have joined local communities to play a crucial role in defending property owners. Through concerted efforts, nearly 20,000 homes and small businesses have been saved from condemnation or being labeled as “blighted” or “in need of redevelopment,” designations often precede eminent domain actions in many states. But the fight for justice continues.

This widespread response underscores the deep national commitment to protecting private property rights and preventing the misuse of eminent domain for private development projects.

Susette Kelo is applauded before speaking at a news conference in Austin, Texas
On January 22, 2009, Susette Kelo is applauded before speaking at a news conference in Austin, Texas. From left to right: Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson; Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Kelo was the lead plaintiff in Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that private property can be taken through eminent domain for economic development projects.

Moving Forward: Safeguarding Your Property Rights

In light of the Kelo decision, property owners must be vigilant and proactive in protecting their rights. Here are some steps to consider if your property is threatened by eminent domain:

If you receive a notice of condemnation or redevelopment, immediately consult a real estate attorney specializing in eminent domain. They can provide crucial guidance and help you navigate the legal complexities.

Understand Your Rights:

Familiarize yourself with local and state laws regarding eminent domain. Knowing your rights and the legal procedures can help you better defend your property.

Engage With Community And Advocacy Groups:

Joining forces with neighbors and advocacy organizations can amplify your voice and influence public opinion. Collective action can be a powerful force against eminent domain abuses.

Participate In Public Hearings And Meetings:

Engage in the public process by attending city council meetings and public hearings. Your input can shape the outcome of proposed projects and highlight the importance of preserving communities.

Document And Preserve Your Property’s Value:

Keep detailed records of your property’s condition and improvements. In a legal battle over compensation, thorough documentation can support your claim for just compensation.

The Kelo v. City of New London case is a stark reminder of the potential for misusing eminent domain, highlighting the need for vigilance and advocacy to protect property rights.

While the decision expanded the scope of public use, it also sparked a national conversation and legislative action to safeguard individual property owners from similar fates.

Understanding the legal landscape and mobilizing community resources is essential to ensuring that property rights are respected and protected. The story of Susette Kelo and the Fort Trumbull community continues to inspire efforts to balance public interests with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Fifth Amendment.

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