Trump’s love note to eminent domain miscasts New London case

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Donald Trump’s embrace of government power to take private property, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Connecticut’s Kelo v. New London case, drew barbs Wednesday from at least one rival and mischaracterized the outcome for one of the families involved in Kelo.

“I think eminent domain is wonderful,” the Republican presidential contender said when asked about government land taking in an interview broadcast on Fox News Tuesday evening. He went on to explain: “For massive projects – for instance, you’re going to create thousands of jobs, and you have somebody that’s in the way … without this little house, you can’t build the factory. I think eminent domain is fine.”

Later, the New York developer and television celebrity emphasized that most of the time, the hold-out property owner just wants more money and gets a windfall: “A person has a house, and they end up getting much more than the house is ever worth,” Trump said. “You know, eminent domain is not like you — they take your house.”

For Matt Dery and his New London, Connecticut, family, it didn’t work that way. Dery took his fight for family properties all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. The 2005 Kelo decision left his family no option other than to sell their four houses in the Fort Trumbull area to make way for planned development. They got roughly the market value, or just under $1 million, for the properties, he said by telephone Wednesday.

But the waterfront homes were worth much more than that to the Dery family. Matt’s mother had lived in one of the houses since her birth in 1918 and had no desire to move, nor did any of the Dery family. Dery said the court decision essentially left them with a veritable gun to their heads when they sold the properties. By then, their rights and preferences as owners were gone, he said. “All those considerations were taken away.”

The Derys and about 90 other property owners had stood in the way of a planned commercial development sought by the seaside city after Pfizer Corp. built a plant nearby in 1998. The plan called for retail, office and residential buildings – the economic infrastructure to support both Pfizer and future development. Dery and eight neighbors, including Susette Kelo, fought the takings to no avail.

Yet 10 years after Kelo, the city has spent almost $80 million and the Fort Trumbull homes are gone, but nothing has been built. And on top of that, Pfizer announced in 2009 that it was closing shop in New London. The New York-based drugmaker pulled out just as tax benefits used to attract the company were set to expire.

Trump played a role of sorts in the Dery family’s struggle. Matt Dery said news accounts of Trump’s attempts to have an Atlantic City homeowner’s property taken by eminent domain led him to contact the Institute for justice, a libertarian group in Arlington, Virginia, that helped the elderly resident, Vera Coking, successfully fight the taking. Trump reportedly wanted her property to build a parking lot for limousines bringing patrons to one of his casinos.

Marco Rubio, a Florida senator and one of the developer’s rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, seized on Trump’s comments to blast him Wednesday. Speaking to a Weekly Standard reporter in New Hampshire, Rubio said, “he’s wrong about that. One of the most important rights Americans have is private property.”

Rubio also pointed out that as a state legislator, he had helped to pass a law that bars the use of eminent domain to take property from one private owner and give it to another.

The Institute for Justice says on its website that after Kelo, 44 states passed laws to reform their eminent domain processes, and 12 have amended their constitutions to prevent use of the land-taking power for private gain.

As Fox’s Bret Baier noted to Trump Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, has suggested that the Kelo ruling threatens the rights of the poor, “who will see their property turned over to corporate interests and wealthy developers.” Trump rejected that suggestion. Regarding property owners who resist land taking for development, he said, “most of the time, they just want money.”

Matt Dery said he and his relatives certainly didn’t take that attitude. They would have been content to be left alone where his family had lived since 1895.

“We miss that house to this day,” he said from New London.