Monday, June 05, 2006

"The people there are just as vulnerable today as they were before."

Eminent domain case was like shot heard 'round U.S.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Copyright 2006

The first battle of Fort Trumbull in Connecticut, captured by British troops led by traitor Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War, produced less impact than the siege simmering there now.

One year ago, homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London lost their legal battle before the U.S. Supreme Court to keep their homes from being condemned by the city to make way for upscale development. Their loss sparked a backlash that resulted in Georgia — and most states across the nation — passing laws to limit similar condemnations.

Georgia legislators had discussed eminent domain before the ruling, but immediately after the ruling, the issue caught fire. Study committee meetings led last summer by Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) were packed with citizens, attorneys and lobbyists.

State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Atlanta) led the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw the writing of Georgia's law through numerous hearings with standing room only crowds this year. It has been a long time since he has seen an issue that attracted such broad public interest and input, Willard said.

"It took that [court] decision to wake up people and say, golly, we are all subject to that same law," he said.

Larry Morandi, director of state policy research at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said, "Every state Legislature that went into session or was in session since June 23 of last year [44 total] has considered legislation restricting the use of eminent domain."

Twenty-seven of them passed laws restricting the use of eminent domain; others are still working on the issue.

"I've never seen this much legislative action this quickly after a Supreme Court decision," Morandi said.

Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., which defended the homeowners in New London, said he knew there was resentment against condemnations, but he was surprised at the national reaction.

"There was outrage, and people could not believe that could happen here. ... And it has been a true turning point in the battle."

The lawyers from the Institute for Justice did a masterful job of portraying this as an "everyman" case, Morandi said — everybody has a home, every home could be subject to being taken away by powerful developers with government collusion.

"This is a gut issue, whether you are in Georgia or Vermont, Democrat or Republican, property rights affect everyone," he said.

The broad appeal led to strange alliances, he said.

That happened in Georgia also, where members of the Christian Coalition, the Sierra Club, the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Henry County chapter of the NAACP joined in a news conference to urge Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Legislature to take decisive action.

Georgia passed one of the better laws, in the estimation of the Institute for Justice. But it came too late to help the most high-profile case in Georgia.

The city of Stockbridge is condemning Mark Meeks' flower shop to make way for a downtown development to be built largely by private companies. Legislators considered whether they could make the law retroactive to save Meeks' land before deciding not to try.

Meeks is fighting the condemnation through court appeals. He will be a guest of the Institute for Justice at a national conference on eminent domain next week in Arlington, along with Susette Kelo, one of the homeowners in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

Though Kelo lost her case, she and five other families have yet to relinquish their homes. New London legally owns them and set a deadline for the owners to accept the city's final monetary offers last week.

Bert Gall, another Institute for Justice attorney, said, "[The city is] going to take the money off the table and are threatening them with back taxes and fines."

Connecticut considered new legislation restricting eminent domain, but it did nothing.

"The people there are just as vulnerable today as they were before," Gall said.

"It was the epicenter and nothing happened."

© 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: