Eminent Domain in Connecticut – A “Race to the Bottom”

Conventional wisdom has it that Connecticut is a sort of a nice place. You know, rich history, colonial charm, high-class suburban/exurban atmosphere, etc. It acquired that reputation many years ago when all those famous New York folks took up residence in the Nutmeg State and commuted to New your on the New Haven Railroad, to their upscale jobs in advertising, publishing etc. Quite some time ago, a wit characterized the Connecticut population as consisting of of geniuses, commuters and clamdiggers. The geniuses were the literary types who could work at home but needed to be reasonably close to their New York publishers, commuters were, well, commuters, and clamdiggers were the rest of the population — indigenous folks who made their living locally. But all in all, it was thought to be a nice place.

 The Kelo case, and more particularly its aftermath shone a different light on Connecticut. It turned out that, not only was Connecticut a legal snake pit when it came to eminent domain — it singled out for destruction an unoffending lower class community in New London for the sake of fattening the purse of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, earning for itself widespread and well-earned opprobrium, but it was defiant about it afterwards even though the redevelpment project that gave rise to the Kelo case proved to be an utter duisaster that produced nothing even as it consumed somewhere around $100 million in public funds.

But in a sense, worse was what happened in Connecticut later. Nothing. Unchastened by the Kelo disaster, the Connecticur legislature became one of the minority among the states, that failed to rectify its eminent domain laws — not even in some token way.

Now, we learn that the Kelo disaster was not the only such event in Connecticut. Though it did not receive publicity like Kelo, the events in Bridgeport are even worse. We commend to our readers an article in the Hartford Courant, by Robert S. Poliner, the former Ombudsman for the State of Connecticut, entitled Eminent Domain: Taking Control, January 31, 2010  (go to http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-commentarypoliner0131.artjan31,0,6681560.story ).

In it we learn that the redevelopment efforts in Bridgeport made New London look like a piker. Starting in 1970 Bridgeport began its Steel Point redevelopment project. That’s sright, 1970 — that’s 40 years ago. It acquired some 52 acres. What did it produce? Nothing, zip, nada, bobkes, even though its redevelopment plan was revised eight times. Fortunes have been frittered away on that one, an now some Bridgeport honcho says that it may take another 25 years to get on with it.

But you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Mr Poliner also tells us about the incredible — that’s “incredible” as in unbelievable — story of  Connecticut DOT setting out to condemn a 17-acre parcel it needed for a highway project. But instead, it took a 108-acre tract of land containing a quarry with some 15 million tons of unexcavated stone in it, and paid $4.1 million. Actually, the word “paid” is a term of art in Connecticut. Over there they don’t have any kind of impartial judicial determination of value in eminent domain cases — the condemnor just makes a unilateral determination and deposits whatever it thinks is “just compensation,” acquiring instant title. If the owners are dissatisfied with that, it’s up to them to hire a lawyer and appraiser, and file a lawsuit, if they want any kind of impartially determined compensation.

This is what happened in the quarry case. But it turned out that though it deposited only $4.1 million, DOT had two independent appraisals valuing the property at $14 million to $18 million, and its own estimates indicated a value of perhaps as much as $30 million — a 108 acre tract of land with 15 million tons of quarry quality stone in it ain’t hay. As Poliner tells it, “. . .the DOT hired an out-of-state appraiser with questionable credentials who said the entire property was worth only $2.36 million. He was paid $240,000.” Wow!

As luck would have it, this case wound up in front of an honest, outspoken judge, and the doo-doo hit the fan. Big time. We quote from Poliner’s article:

“The trial judge used the words “misrepresented,” “lied,” “deceived,” “partisan” and “unethical” to describe the appraiser’s work for the DOT and his testimony. The judge said the DOT was “unreasonable,” “unprofessional,” and ” lacking in dilligence and less that scrupulous.” 

It may not come as a surprise to the readers of our “Lowball Watch” posts, that the judge’s award (they don’t have juries in Connecticut) came to $22.90 million, plus interest of $18.8 million. 

What makes this saga of particular interest is that according to Poliner, the Connecticut Attorney General declined to appeal this case, so that’s that.

So let’s be thankful for honest judges.