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It sounds like an idyllic dream, almost Norman Rockwell-esque. You buy a quaint cottage in a sleepy New England town to start life’s next chapter and raise your children. Then, astonishingly, the rug gets pulled out from underneath: A multibillion-dollar corporation wants to bulldoze your house to make room for a massive project.
But it’s not fiction. It happened to Susette Kelo, a small-town nurse who became a heroine and reluctant leader to her working-class neighbors. Her saga, which culminated in a landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, is now the subject of a Hollywood movie.
Kelo bought her New London, Connecticut, dream home in the late 1990s and lovingly restored it. She planned to quietly live there for years. However, the city had other plans.
To revitalize its economy and create jobs, New London created a development plan focused around the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The city purchased most of the properties designated for the project. But Kelo and a handful of others refused to sell. Their crux: the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment Takings Clause barred government seizure of their land for private use without just compensation.
At the U.S. Supreme Court, Kelo lost by the slimmest of margins (5 to 4). Although the general public would not enjoy the use of the properties as it would with a park or street, the Supreme Court described “public purpose” more broadly. The city was distressed and formulated a comprehensive development plan to foster economic growth and rejuvenate the area. The Court determined that New London carefully formulated a plan to harmonize commercial, residential, and recreational uses, and to create jobs and tax revenues—ultimately conferring a public benefit.
Kelo proved controversial because many people associate the idea of a public use with beneficial, laudable uses such as:
Instead, many people believe the city stacked its eminent domain power to help Pfizer, a private business.
The bitter irony (and a bitter pill to swallow): Pfizer, the protagonist in Kelo’s drama, ultimately abandoned the city in 2009, after its tax breaks expired. After the city spent $80 million on its buying spree, the project never developed, and those properties are now a barren field.
Kelo became a reluctant crusader, and her battle with a corporate behemoth and the overreaching arm of government intrusion became a cautionary tale that outraged many.
Development is all around us. If your town, borough, county, city, or state has a project affecting you, that government plan may subject your property to condemnation. If so, the government (or an agency) will make an offer to purchase some or all of your property. Usually, those initial offers are too low. With a good condemnation attorney, you may receive substantially more money. If you’re a landowner facing eminent domain, you need the right lawyer.
Trust the landowner professionals at Sever Storey. Call us right away at (888) 318-3761, or contact us confidentially. Our team of attorneys serves clients from throughout the country. We’ll help you get what you deserve.
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