New London Mayor Advocates Devoting the Kelo Condemnation Site to a True “Public Use”

Eight years after the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that private property can be taken and transferred to other private owners in order to promote “economic development” because such development qualifies as a “public use” under the Fifth Amendment, the Kelo condemnation site still lies empty. But New London Mayor Justin Finizio, who previously apologized for the original Kelo condemnations, has proposed devoting the property for a true public use:

The 2005 Supreme Court decision in New London v. Kelo [sic], in which the court by a 5-4 majority constitutionally validated the New London Development Corp.’s use of eminent domain to purchase and raze the homes of Fort Trumbull residents who refused to sell, remains a “black stain” on the city, said its mayor

NLDC wanted to clear the site to attract large corporate development and expand the city’s tax base. Its judicial triumpth proved a pyrrhic victory, the decision widely despised for interpreting “public use” to include the government taking the property of citizens to turn over to private developers. Count the New London mayor among the despisers. He characterized the Kelo decision as a “corruption of the constitutional interpretation of public use.”

Fort Trumbull has seen no new construction since the bulldozers departed the flattened neighborhood.

Mayor Finizio said he would like New London to symbolically overturn Kelo by undertaking a true “public use” of the seized private properties. He offered as an example a parking garage, under discussion recently as a means of meeting the parking demands generated by Electric Boat’s offices in the former Pfizer buildings, the one major project resulting from NLDC’s corporate development vision.

This would not be any municipal parking garage, but one with solar panels to power it, landscaping and design to fit it into the setting, and first-floor shops to generate revenues.

“What really gets us beyond the eminent domain debacle may be effectively overturning the Kelo opinion if not de jure before the Supreme Court, then de facto in the city of New London,” said Finizio. “What (New London) justified this (eminent domain seizure) on was generating private development for economic development purposes, but what we are actually going to do is create public development for economic development purposes.”

Mayor Finizio’s idea could well fit the narrower definition of “public use” advocated by critics of the Kelo decision, which requires the condemned property to be transferred to government ownership or to a public utility or common carrier that is legally required to allow the public to use the property. But it’s not clear whether the proposal will actually work.

Several previous proposed uses for the condemned property have failed to pan out, and it is hard to say whether Mayor Finizio’s idea will prove any more viable. Even if it does, the condemned land will have remained empty for a decade or more by the time the new development project is completed. This ensures that, even from a strictly economic point of view, the Kelo condemnations will end up destroying far more value for the City of New London than they are likely to create. Had the City simply left the previous property owners alone, they would have continued to pay property taxes on their homes and rental properties, and otherwise contribute to the local economy. In addition, they city and state would have saved millions of dollars in various expenses associated with the takings. Sadly, “economic development” condemnations that destroy more development than they create are all too common.

However, it would be wrong to say that no one at all has benefited from the Kelo takings. So long as the condemned land remains unused, it can continue to serve as a home for feral cats.