Standing sentinel over New London Harbor, historic Fort Trumbull peninsula was once home to more than 100 families. By the time Susette Kelo’s suit to save her house (background) landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, the city was seven years into its redevelopment plan, and only. a handful of homes remained.Photo Credit : Tim Martin
From “A House Divided,” Yankee Magazine, January 2007
Susette Kelo sits at a table in front of her famous pink house, arms folded across her chest, lemonade untouched. A white-hot fury narrows her eyes and hardens her mouth. The afternoon is otherwise perfect: a lush summer light, gulls overhead, the Block Island ferry on approach where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound. Around the perimeter of the house perennials are in bloom. Hollyhocks vie with clematis for the showiest display. The flowers’ scent and the ocean air compensate for the whiff of a nearby wastewater treatment plant.
One year ago on this day, in the wake of the June 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sparked a storm of national protest, hundreds of people rallied at New London’s city hall to support Kelo’s refusal to allow her house to be taken by eminent domain for a “public use” she deemed spurious. One month ago, after the failure of last-ditch interventions, the city council authorized its attorney to obtain a court order to demolish her home.
“I wake up angry. I go to bed angry. Every minute of the day I’m angry,” Kelo says. “Bastards.” By this she means the city of New London, the state of Connecticut, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court, and a nonprofit corporation formed to facilitate development in New London.
A car pulls around the corner of Trumbull and onto East Street, slowing as its occupants crane for a view. Gawkers. Kelo ignores them. Her house and 14 others stand like sentinels over 90 acres of empty lots that until recently held neighboring homes and a handful of businesses. The houses that remain are scattered—a few on Goshen and Smith Streets, a cluster on the corner of Walbach, and Kelo’s at the end of East. It is a barren landscape, although not without a certain beauty in the starkness of the land and sea and sky. To the south rises Pfizer’s global research and development headquarters.
Kelo’s 1893 cottage stands out in this setting for its isolation as well as its bearing. The stone-trimmed yard is in order, the flowers free of weeds. A sign posted in front says “Not for Sale.” Inside, the hardwood floors gleam. The chairs around the kitchen table are Hitchcock; Kelo, a bargain hunter, found them used. The beds upstairs are covered with quilts and overstuffed pillows. It’s clearly a place people care about.
The car pulls away. Kelo’s anger is replaced by sorrow. “Why?” Her eyes fill. “Why did they do this to us?” Her tone as she stoops to pet the cat that twines around her legs is one of bewilderment. “I can’t believe it happened.”
Understanding what happened in New London is not a simple matter, occurring as it did over most of a decade, often behind closed doors across private and public sectors. Those involved on both sides seem incredulous that another perspective could exist. Motives of opponents are reduced to a single pejorative: greed, cronyism, power, hubris.
One thing is clear: The city of New London was in trouble long before Susette Kelo and eight other property owners (representing seven families all together) filed suit against it to keep their homes. Once a dynamic whaling port, today New London is the second-poorest city in the state. Daunting cuts in services to its 26,000 residents are routine. Recent setbacks include the 1996 closure of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and layoffs across the river at Electric Boat in Groton, as well as an earlier industrial/residential exodus and the ensuing departure of downtown businesses. Everywhere, buildings are for rent or sale or lease. The Thames River, wide and tidal, is a backdrop to it all. The context of Kelo v. City of New London is one of a small city in which more than half the property is tax-exempt and almost no open space remains for development. New London’s situation is far from unique, and all across America there seems to be no monolithic fix.
In his downtown office tucked behind an art gallery, Michael Joplin is so impassioned that he can’t stay seated. He paces back and forth, talking with an almost messianic zeal about a master plan he says was designed with the city’s interests at heart—a plan that, among other things, calls for most of the neighborhood around Fort Trumbull State Park to be razed to make way for development intended to bring jobs, tax revenue, and other benefits to the city.
“We don’t need another million dollars. We need another $20 million,” Joplin says, referring to the consistent shortfall in the city’s budget. “Where’s it supposed to come from? You need a big chunk of land to generate a big chunk of money. That’s what the plan was about.”
The plan to which he refers originated in 1998, before Joplin became president of the board of directors of the New London Development Corporation (NLDC) four years ago. Back then, the NLDC was led by Connecticut College’s president at that time, Claire Gaudiani, a take-charge woman who quintupled the college’s endowment before turning her sights on the city below. One of her recruits to serve on the board of the newly revived NLDC was George Milne Jr., then president of central research at Pfizer in nearby Groton and a Connecticut College trustee. The immediate question before the group was how to make use of a 24-acre former linoleum mill on the outskirts of town.
In January of that year, the state approved a $5 million request by the NLDC to plan for a waterfront redevelopment that included the vacant naval warfare facility, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, and the site where Pfizer would eventually build a $300 million research headquarters. The state also agreed to spend about $35 million on refurbishment of the 1852 fort, creation of a state park around it, and contamination cleanup. The city and state together pledged $11 million to reduce odor from the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
A month later, when Pfizer announced it would locate its new facility in New London, Gaudiani was thrilled. “We said to ourselves … what if we can create a city where there is no persistent underclass and where the children of the poor [are] achieving at a level that approximates the level of middle-income families? … [T]hat’s the mentality we have here—that we want to say enough is enough,” she told the Hartford Courant in 2001.
Lloyd Beachy, who was then mayor, did not share Gaudiani’s enthusiasm. He remembers being called to her office and shown a balloon chart that laid out the Fort neighborhood with circles to indicate various modifications including a new hotel, conference center, parking, and housing. The diagram, he says, had been drawn up by Pfizer’s design firm without any input whatsoever from the city: “We were told what we were going to do. It was state-run from the start.”
The city’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP), as it progressed, came to include the hotel and conference center, an apartment and condominium complex, a biotech incubator, a museum, and a walkway along the river. The state agreed to contribute $73 million primarily to help buy the buildings that would be demolished, to equip the area with updated roads and utilities, and to ameliorate more contamination. The city council gave the NLDC power of eminent domain, and the agency voted to begin taking any remaining properties in 2000. In June 2001, Pfizer opened its doors within easy sight of Fort Trumbull.
Many people, including Joplin, credit Claire Gaudiani with having the vision that could save a city. That vision notwithstanding, she did not endear herself to residents by telling reporters she wanted to turn New London into a “hip little town.” Aerial photographs pinned to the walls in the NLDC offices impart a surely unintended coldness in conveying MDP “progress.” The first photo depicts the Fort neighborhood largely as it was, with blocks of homes and buildings. Pfizer appears in the second shot, which also shows empty lots where buildings have been razed. The third photo is closest to the way the area looks now: a desolate place dotted here and there with structures.
Even so, Joplin—who spent his high school years in New London as the son of a retired career Navy man who was working as a security officer at the nearby submarine base—remains ardently defensive of the city’s mission. In a letter to The Day, New London’s daily paper, he wrote that “the rationale for our plans and work can never be reduced to a simple, or fearful, sound bite.” Now, still pacing, he says, “It’s about the kids in the projects who need a decent education.”
City Attorney Thomas Londregan, who has lived in New London all his life, furthers that sentiment. “I believe I was fighting for the underdog,” he says. “You don’t find Section 8 housing in the lily-white suburbs or programs for the poor and the disadvantaged. I’d like them to come and try to take over the social responsibility we have here.”
For Susette Kelo and other residents of the Fort, the first sign of trouble came in January 1998, when real estate agents began showing up at their doors. Kelo remembers a woman making an offer on behalf of “an unnamed buyer.” Kelo said she wasn’t interested in selling. She remembers being told that if she refused, her home would be taken by the city. “[The agent] told me stories of her relatives who had lost their homes to eminent domain.” Her advice was to give up. “‘The government always wins,’” Kelo remembers her saying.
Kelo was not one to easily surrender. Much of her life, it seems, has been characterized by resilience in the face of hardship. She moved to New London from northern Maine when she was 7. Her mother took a job as a waitress and sent Kelo and her siblings to local Catholic schools. The family eventually moved; Kelo did not return to New London until 1997, after a divorce. By then her five sons, now ages 24 to 33, were nearly grown. Kelo had waited until the youngest left high school to pursue her degree in nursing and was working as a paramedic.
One day, she was called to Fort Trumbull to meet the Sea Stretcher from Fishers Island. The patient, as it turned out, did not have to be transported. On her way back from the water, Kelo came across a ramshackle cottage for sale on East Street. It needed extensive work, but she was taken by the location—“a nice, warm, working-class neighborhood”—and by the view. Later, she went with a real estate agent to look at the property. “When I walked in, it was like I’d been there all my life,” she says, her face softening at the memory. “I turned to the Realtor and said, ‘I want it.’ He thought I was out of my mind.”
Kelo began to renovate her house “pretty much from top to bottom,” starting by cutting brush so she could get to the front door. She poured concrete for the basement, shingled the roof, and improved the interior. She painted the house salmon pink, her favorite color. During this time she met Tim LeBlanc, who has since become her husband. A stonemason, LeBlanc did much of the exterior work on the house, and together they settled in, getting up early for sunrises over the harbor and watching sunsets from the patio in back.
Still flush with the new turns in her life, Kelo brought a sense of optimism to the Tuesday-morning meetings she and her neighbors held in their kitchens in response to pressure from the city to sell their homes. Once assembled, they’d parcel out tasks—fliers, posters, letters to the editor—and strategize over mugs of coffee.
“I thought things were going to work out,” says Kelo. “I really did.”
In January 2000, after the city delegated its power of eminent domain to the NLDC, the pace of the turnover picked up. Two appraisers assessed properties and offered owners the higher of the two amounts. One by one, Fort residents gave in. Bulldozers began knocking down buildings that spring. Those who remained recall the dust and noise as houses crumbled and their neighbors moved away.
On the day before Thanksgiving of that year, a sheriff affixed a letter to Kelo’s door: Her home had been condemned by the city of New London and the NLDC. She would be given $128,000 in compensation (a little more than twice what she had paid), and she had to be out by March. A few blocks away, on Goshen Street, the same thing was happening at the Cristofaro residence, only in this case both of the elderly Cristofaros happened to be home when the sheriff arrived. According to their son Michael, the news was so upsetting that his mother began having chest pain and had to be taken to the hospital.
Bill Von Winkle, who was living in the Fort and was also a landlord there, recalls another unpleasant moment: “They kicked in the doors and woke people up,” he says of the effort to empty his buildings of tenants after he refused to evict them. “Afterwards, they nailed the doors shut and put padlocks on the front. The police had to come and let everyone back in.”
In mid-December, the Institute for Justice—a libertarian law firm based in Arlington, Virginia—agreed to represent seven families, including Kelo and the Cristofaros, in a suit against the city. Together, the plaintiffs owned 15 houses and businesses. “We got involved because what was going on was an outrageous abuse of power,” says Scott Bullock, who argued the case. “There was so little respect shown for these people. The city wanted to take an entire neighborhood and make it anew. They were not willing to compromise.”
By 2001, the NLDC had acquired about 80 buildings and demolished most of them. The trial began in July of that year in New London Superior Court. Bullock argued that the city had violated the law by subverting the process of eminent domain from providing for the public good (with entities such as schools, roads, and bridges) to creating profits for private developers. Bullock maintained that economic development, implicit in the MDP, did not qualify as public use.
In March 2002, the court ruled that four plaintiffs had the right to remain where they were but that the city could take four properties near the waterfront for redevelopment. Neither the city nor the property owners were happy and sought to have the decision overturned.
One night in late 2002, Susette Kelo was working in a hospital emergency room when a man critically hurt in a car accident was rushed in by ambulance. It was only after working alongside the rest of the medical staff for some time that Kelo realized the man was Tim LeBlanc. For two weeks he remained in a coma, and he was hospitalized for two months.
Kelo came to love her neighborhood even more while her husband was at home recovering from his disabling brain injury. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” she says of her neighbors. “They took care of Timmy while I was at work. He’d go up the street to make Italian sausage and meatballs with the Derys, or Billy Von Winkle would come take him to a flea market and out to eat. I’ll never find people with that kind of character anywhere else.”
While LeBlanc was still hospitalized, the Connecticut Supreme Court began hearing the appeal. Fifteen months later, in March 2004, it affirmed the NLDC’s use of eminent domain. The Institute for Justice then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the Fort Trumbull plaintiffs to keep their properties. Oral arguments were presented in February 2005; Kelo and LeBlanc were there, as were many of the other neighbors. In June, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of New London. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that “public purpose” could include creating jobs in a depressed city. The court should not second-guess local governments, he said: “[P]romoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted function of government.”
The ruling sent shock waves across the nation. A Christian Science Monitorpoll found that 98.5 percent of respondents disagreed with the court’s decision. Seemingly odd bedfellows such as Rush Limbaugh, the AARP, Ralph Nader, the NAACP, and the Libertarian Party warned of eminent domain abuse to come. In the ensuing months, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to deny federal funds to cities or states that use eminent domain for economic development. Many state legislatures have begun to consider similar laws, and at least 28 states made changes in the past year. On the first anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, President Bush ordered that federal agencies could not take private property except for public works projects.
Despite the outpouring of support, prospects in the Fort remained essentially unchanged. Gradually, one petitioner after another settled with the city—Guretsky, Dery, Brelesky, Beyer, Von Winkle—until all that remained were the Cristofaro family and Kelo. On June 30, 2006, they signed agreements. The city agreed that Kelo’s house would not be demolished; instead, it would be moved from 8 East Street to another New London neighborhood. It was later disclosed that Susette Kelo received $442,000 to end her fight.
On the deck of a downtown restaurant, Kelo and LeBlanc sit gazing out at the harbor. Even at dusk, the water is alive with boats. To the west, workers are setting up concessions and amusement rides for the coming weekend’s Sailfest. “This will be our last year watching the fireworks,” Kelo says.
“We’ll watch them someplace else, Susy,”says LeBlanc.
“Things will change. Not necessarily for the better,” Kelo tells him. She relents a little.“I hope all of us, wherever we wind up, will find a place to call home again.”
When they do move, Kelo and LeBlanc will uproot their perennials and take them. LeBlanc is already collecting containers. That comforts him, but Kelo says, “They could have had their hotel and their condos and just left us here. We were never against the development. We were simply against leaving. But I’m not good enough. None of us was good enough.”
On both sides, feelings still run high. “This high-pitched rhetoric owes its intensity to a long and effective public relations campaign by the Institute for Justice,” wrote Gregory Stone, deputy editor of The Day’s editorial page. “The Institute planted the story in the nation’s leading newspapers, employing as its poster person for this national campaign Susette Kelo … [The] controversy has gone over the top, from a civic controversy to a libertarian morality play.”
Not that the Institute for Justice is budging. “The [Supreme Court] decision was despised across all political persuasions, and for good reason,” says petitioners’ attorney Bullock. “What happened in Fort Trumbull was wrong. It was about ego and arrogance as opposed to common sense. [The NLDC] could easily have built around what was there.”
Londregan, the city attorney, dismisses that option: “What developer would be interested in building a brand-new building under those conditions?” What’s more, he says, the Fort had been zoned industrial/commercial since 1929 and many buildings were vacant. It never was, he says, the cozy neighborhood depicted in the media.
In the end, it’s hard to locate a true villain, despite probable missteps both in terms of how the MDP evolved and how the property owners were treated. It seems likely, too, that part of the neighborhood could have been preserved. Yet, as Londregan points out, “How often does a state government offer $70 million? How often does a major pharmaceutical company of international renown decide to build a $350 million complex in your city?” At least some of the perceived haste and heedlessness may have resulted from that.
In any case, there are two things on which almost everyone agrees: The first is that they’re tired. Kelo, the Cristofaros, Joplin, Londregan—everyone mentions being tired. And rightly so. As Von Winkle says, “We’ve been fighting for years and years.” The second point of agreement is that New London has sustained a blow to its image, both in terms of how others see it and how it sees itself. Across the United States, the city has become known as the place that trampled a woman’s right to her own home. And yet Kelo herself says, “I love this city. I hate what’s happened to it.”
During the almost decade-long fight over the future of the neighborhood, the city’s fortunes have not changed much. Plans still call for a museum, a hotel, and housing in the currently bleak and dusty Fort, but whether they will materialize remains to be seen. In the meantime, as part of the state’s $73 million investment, the city has made major improvements to the area’s infrastructure: new water and sewer lines, street lamps, and underground utilities. New roads too—wide boulevards with generous sidewalks—most of which so far lead nowhere, in wait of what will come.