Property Rights Foundation of America®

Speech from the Ninth Annual National Conference
on Private Property Rights
(2005)

Local Citizen Organizing to Defeat Eminent Domain

By Michael Cristofaro

Thank you, thank you. I am going to give you a little bit of history of myself before I even start about this whole eminent domain. I lived in New London. I was born and raised in New London. I love New London. My family came over from Italy in 1962. They came over to make a better life for themselves. They settled in New London. My father worked for the City of New London. He purchased his first home in New London after the first year. So when the City came to him and said that he was going to lose his first home by eminent domain, he wanted to do the right thing because he didn't know any different. From the government that he came from you either listened to what the government tells you or you will probably be shot. So he let them take his first home, and he had owned that home for eight years. That was in New London.

So, with that said, my family is now losing their second home. What New London has done to my neighbors and my family is just atrocious. My family strongly disagrees with the power of government to take private property and hand it over to only developers. With the use of eminent domain a developer doesn't have to negotiate. He just has to go to the City and say, listen, we have a better plan than what these property owners have. We can generate more property taxes. We can create more jobs. We want the property. From what I understand, eminent domain is defined as taking a private property for public use as long as just compensation is paid. Public use should only be used for reservoirs, highways, police departments. That's what our forefathers intended it to be for, not for luxury hotels, condos, industrial parks that only benefit one person, and that is the developers.

From the beginning, Pfizer Corporation has denied involvement in the project in New London. They denied that they were responsible for any of the eminent domain proceedings. Recently, last Sunday, our local newspaper finally had enough guts to print an article that revealed it for once and for all that Pfizer was behind the whole project. Even one of their own executives stated over five years ago that they did not want to look out their window down at the tenements. So, if you want to talk about a slap in the face, that's how I feel.

The day that the U.S. Supreme Court made their decision, it was a big blow to me. I was at work, and Dana Berliner from the Institute for Justice called me and told me that we lost. I was without words for the first time in a long time. And I could tell from Dana's voice that it also hit her hard, and she was probably in tears herself. I had to actually sit down and take it all in. That day I got the unpleasant task to tell my father that he had lost his house that his family had lived in for over 35 years. He looked at me and said, what are you talking about. I own that house. I said, no, unfortunately, we took it to the courts. We have no other recourse. The highest court in our country said that the City of New London could take your property by eminent domain.

He said in his Italian accent that he didn't sign a contract, because to him that is how you obtain property. You obtain a lawyer, get a contract, you go to a closing, you sign the papers, and the house is yours. So he said, they didn't come to me. They didn't treat me like a gentleman. They didn't say they wanted to buy my house. All that proved was that they wanted to take it.

Well, guess what? He said that they are not going to take this house.

We may have lost the battle in the U.S. Supreme Court, but I think we have really won the war in eminent domain, because ever since that decision has come out our nation has been in an outcry. I mean, that same day that the U.S. Supreme Court came down with that ruling my phone was ringing off the hook. It was just from people across this nation supporting us. That meant a lot to me because it made it feel that our fight wasn't for nothing, that we actually made some strides.

When the City came and took their first home in New London, they said that it was for a sea wall. A sea wall is a public use, and we understood that, and that is one of the reasons why they did let them take the property. But that was a lie. What they ended up doing was they took over 200 homes, they tore them down, they leveled the land down to sea level, then the land sat vacant for five years, and guess what. It is an office park that sits there now. I drive past that property every day, and I look over and say, my house stood where that office building is. That hurts.

So when they came to us a second time, we said it is not about the money. It is strictly principle, and my parents said, no, you can't have this house, not by eminent domain, because this time they didn't lie. They said they were going to take it and they were going to turn it over to a developer. They were going to take it, our property, at that point they were saying they were going to put a fitness club on it. How is that for public use? Well, my father and mom, they didn't have a mortgage on the property. They looked at their neighbors. Some of the neighbors have been there all their lives. One of our neighbors, the last couple of years with all the stress that he had, he was 93 years old, and his health took a turn, and on his deathbed just a few hours before he passed away, he looked up at his son, and his final words were, what about his house?

Can you imagine, the guy was 93 years old, and the only thing he could think about was his house.

And this is the way the City treats these people. When they use eminent domain, they usually normally go after the elderly and the poor. So, like I said, when they approached my parents, my parents actually said, you know, what can we do for our neighbors? I said, well, we can take this and fight this. But just realize, if we do fight, we may lose, and you may lose your house. They said, well, financially, we can absorb the loss. We need to see what we can do for our neighbors who have mortgages and who have families to take care of.

But what we didn't realize was what we were heading into. It was like getting hit by a freight train. We had more opposition than we could ever imagine at the local, the state level, you name it. All they kept thinking about was, this is a project that is going to save New London. Well, we kept telling people, because we went through eminent domain once, this was not going to save New London. To have corporate America step in is not going to do it. Pfizer's global came in during 1999, and they stated that when they started their operations, our property taxes were going to drop. Well, guess what. Our property taxes increased for some of us by 60 to 70 percent. That is with corporate America moving in. Ever since they started this municipal development plan in the Fort Trumble, they said they were going to build this hotel. They were going to build these biotech buildings. Well, they already had 80 acres that is cleared. It is not tied up in any litigation. We are talking about less than one acre of property of homes. They could put us all in one spot and leave us alone.

Not one thing has been built in six years. Not one property has been put on any type of grant list to help us, and that is because the developer knows that the project is not going to help to make any money, and yet, we are losing our homes. They are basically taking this land like they did the first time, just to brownfield it and then try to offer it to developers at a later date because it is all prime waterfront property.

Well, even in the early stages of doing negotiations with them, and it looked like we weren't going to save our homes, I said, let's try to save some face. I said, I hear you are going to have some townhouse condos built down here. I'll let you have my family's home. All I want is one of those condos. I don't care which unit. You can put me in the basement. Just let me have one of your condos. That way I can say that I am in the neighborhood. You know what I was told? I was told that they didn't know what the value of that condo was and that I could not have it. That is when we really dug our heels in at that point and just said, you know what, why don't you just come out and tell me what you really mean—that the working class people don't belong in this neighborhood and that you are doing it for executives like Pfizer's to take over this neighborhood because this is a better area for them to put up their 5,000 square foot homes. But yet, I am not good enough to live in this neighborhood.

In the early stages of all this the City turned over their power of eminent domain to a private entity called the New London Development Corporation, which is supposed to be a quasi-private company. I still haven't figured out what exactly that is supposed to mean, but what they basically did to obtain these properties was they just harassed everybody. They used to call my parents at all hours of the day and night. And we are a good-sized Italian family. We have our Sunday Italian dinners at home. They would just show up with contracts in their hand on a Sunday just to ruin our meal and say, you don't have a choice. You need to sign this contract today or we are going to take your property by eminent domain, and you are going to get less money than what we are offering you. And we used to just tell them to get the hell out of here. This is our home. Don't come intruding into our property. A week before Thanksgiving, November 2000, the agency, the NLDC, sent me an overnight contract to my house because at that point I told them from that point on, do not harass my parents. They don't need to be bothered with this. You need to talk to me. They overnighted that contract, and they called me the next day and said, did you receive the contract? I said, yes, I did. Well, did you get your parents to sign it? I said, why would I get my parents to sign this contract? They said, well, they don't have a choice. They need to sign it. I said, well, if you want the contract, it is ripped up in pieces and it is in the garbage can. Oh, you can't do that. Well, that is where it is. It's in the garbage can. Come get it.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2000 they served my parents with condemnation papers. The sheriff came to the door, handed the paperwork to my mom, and explained to them that they just lost their house. My mom broke down and started crying, and she became extremely distraught. We had to bring her to the hospital because she was having heart palpitations. We didn't have a clue what was going on. That was the first time we had to bring her to the hospital. The second time we had to bring her to the hospital because of the stress of this whole case was the day before we went to the Superior Court. She was supposed to testify. She ended up in the hospital for a whole week because of that.

Now that just kind of gives you a small idea of what this really does to elderly people. Don't tell me this doesn't affect humans. It affects the people that can't afford to leave, it affects the people that love their homes, and they shouldn't have to if it is not their choice to leave. That's all there is to it. We have families that have been in that area since 1895. Why should they be uprooted just so that a hotel could be built?

We calculated the projected tax savings to the City of New London residents on their homes. If the whole project had gone forward, we estimated that each homeowner in New London would have saved $100 on their taxes. Is that generating more property taxes for you? I don't think so, and I can never ever have voted for eminent domain just to throw people out just to save taxes, for someone else to save taxes. But that just gives you an idea of how arrogant the City of New London is.

The amount of money that the City of New London offered my parents was even less than market value, even less than the City's own assessed value. It was actually 70 percent of what the City said it was really worth. In the early stages they only offered my parents $60,000 for a third of an acre and a 10-room house with a two-car garage. Within a year they did increase their offer. It was $150,000. Like I said, 70 percent of the actual value. It has never been about money with my parents. They just wanted to keep their home. They didn't want the money, but to the other individuals that are losing their homes by eminent domain, where are you going to find another comparable piece of property for what they are going to offer you? You end up buying something less, something in an area that is worse off. That is not "just compensation." That is stealing your home so that someone else could benefit from your property.

As a citizen you must do whatever it takes to protect your property rights or any of your rights. The media is your friend. Don't be afraid to speak your peace. Write to every newspaper that you possibly can and tell your story. Let your elected officials know that they must protect our rights to own property. Tell anyone that will listen. I have been told I am a modern day freedom fighter, but I am just an average citizen that is fighting to keep his home. I was almost arrested a month ago for trying to access a public meeting at our city hall just to let my elected officials know that the eviction notice that was sent out a week before was wrong. All I wanted to let them know was that they need to re-send that eviction notice and that under no circumstances was I going to leave that house, and the only way they were going to get me out of that house, as Carol said earlier, in one of my quotes, was that they will have to rip my fingers, my cold fingers, from that house. That was the only way they were going to get to it. But that night I was denied access to that public hearing, and I was confronted with one of my own city council that came up to me and started saying that I was inciting the mob to riot and encouraging them to ignore the police officers and saying that I was doing it for political gain. The reason why he was saying that was because one of the things that I have started to do was I decided to run for city council.

Another of the things that Carol said, do whatever it takes. I looked at him and said that this has nothing to do about running for city council. This is about you who have been on city council for the last six years. It is about you that voted for eminent domain. It is about you that has put my family through hell for six years. Don't tell me that this is about me running for political office. It is about you and the corruption that you have done to this city.

I want to thank the Institute for Justice for defending us, because without them we would never had made it as far as we did. The Institute for Justice has been extremely encouraging to myself because seven years ago you couldn't drag me up here. This is the last place you would see me talking. I was, like I said, I was happy with what I was doing with my life. I had my own home, worked in my own yard, I kept a very low profile. I was known in the neighborhoods, but, like I said, I was just the average person. But since IJ defended us, they explained to us how it is important to write those letters to the editor, contact your Congress, your legislators, your state representatives. Even if they don't agree with you, let them know that you exist. And I have to thank them. They have built my courage up, because I now don't care who it is out there. Since running for office I think that has given my party more free media attention than any other person that has been running. I mean it is almost daily that I have a TV station that is calling me up asking for an opinion or wanting me on camera. And, of course, I'm there. I'm there.

Now my decision to run for city council, if you ask my wife, she said, you are crazy. What the hell do you want to do that for? The way this City has treated you and now you want to run for city council and get beat up even more. I love New London. I want to see them thrive. I want to remain in New London, and I want everyone to keep their homes and not have them lost by eminent domain. Thank you.

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