The Human Side of Eminent Domain
Book Review by Jigs Gardner
Little Pink House
By Jeff Benedict 2009, 377 pp
This compelling book tells the story of the fight over eminent domain abuse in Connecticut that resulted in the infamous Supreme Court decision in 2005, Kelo vs New London, and the author has done a remarkable job. He makes the story so interesting that it's hard to put down, and he does so by shaping the narrative so adroitly that the many strands in its complex web are clearly marked in enough depth for the reader's understanding without going into stultifying detail. We are told enough but not too much. The chronological organization, from 1992 to 2007, seems logical, but it was a deliberate choice by the author; anyone who has tried to explain a complicated story with so many actors will realize how difficult it is to stick to chronological order. The pacing is quickened by the way the author shifts from one set of actors to another, making us feel present at the time, anxiously awaiting the next turn of events. The organization in itself is masterly.
Benedict begins with Susette Kelo, a forty-year-old working-class woman divorced once and about to divorce her second husband, buying her dream house, a somewhat neglected old place in a working-class neighborhood on the Thames River in New London in the spring of 1997. That this is her dream house will turn out to be very important, because of all the homeowners involved in the struggle, she has the simplest and most rooted motivation: she won't give up because her house means everything to her. Later, when a lawyer from the Institute for Justice assesses the litigants, he puts Susette first because he recognizes her single-minded determination.
Just as Susette is buying her house, the Republican governor is planning to make some political hay in heavily Democratic New London by initiating an urban renewal project along the city's waterfront. To keep it out of the city's hands and under his control, he gives the task to the head of the state's Department of Economic and Community Development, who in turn chooses an influential Democrat and lobbyist as consultant to move the project through the political labyrinth. He decides to use the inactive New London Development Corporation, familiar and unthreatening to the city's politicians, as his instrument, and he chooses Claire Gaudiani, president of Connecticut College, to run it. She is ambitious, superficially brainy, lively, provocative, conventionally unconventional, the kind of woman who easily impresses men. Soon it is decided that the NLDC must attract a major corporation to the project, and the early part of the story tells how Mrs. Gaudiani brokers a deal between Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant with large research labs across the river in Groton, and the state. Pfizer will spend $300 million on a 24-acre site, and the state will spend $100 million improving the area, developing a nearby historic fort as a park, and assembling ninety adjacent acres for a hotel, conference center, office space, and upscale housing and stores, properties that would pay more taxes to the city than their present owners would.
That was the nub of the struggle, the additional land that Pfizer and the NLDC wanted cleared and developed to complement its 24-acre holding, and the book concisely but amply documents the fight, with all its twists and turns. In the end, Susette Kelo lost when the Supreme Court decided against her in 2005. Eventually, the state, embarrassed by all the bad publicity, settled with her and the other litigants, and her pink house (focal point of the resistance) was taken apart and reconstructed elsewhere in the town, to be a memorial to the struggle. She bought a house across the water in Groton and went on with her life, but her ordeal had a positive result: 42 states (not Connecticut) amended their laws to restrain the use of eminent domain to take property for anything but distinctively public purposes.
Although Pfizer built on the 24-acre piece and the old fort was spruced up for a park, the delay caused by the controversy killed the rest of the project, and the disputed area today is, as Benedict says, "a barren wasteland of weeds, litter, and rubble." What an ironic end to all the expensive machinations of the self-important figures so vividly portrayed here! The neighborhood could have been integrated into the project, and an architect provided such a plan, but the NLDC ignored it. None of those supposedly savvy, highly paid politicians and planners and consultants and lawyers and fixers had the sense to see that a lot of money and trouble (and finally, the whole project) could be saved by leaving the neighborhood in place, and one wonders: were they blinded by power, hypnotized by their own lying verbiage (the hypocrisies in their printed statements and official letters have to read to be believed, but that is public speech nowadays), or simply stupid?
Whatever you've read or heard about the Kelo case, you don't know the half of it unless you read this fascinating book.