New London (AP) - Weeds, glass, bricks, pieces of pipe and shingle splinters havereplaced the knot of aging homes at the site of the nation's mostnotorious eminent domain project.
There are a few signs of life: Feral cats glare at visitors froma miniature jungle of Queen Anne's lace, thistle and goldenrod.Gulls swoop between the lot's towering trees and the adjacentsewage treatment plant.
But what of the promised building boom that was supposed to comewrapped and ribboned with up to 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million ayear in tax revenues? They are noticeably missing.
Proponents of the ambitious plan blame the sour economy.Opponents call it a "poetic justice."
"They are getting what they deserve. They are going to getnothing," said Susette Kelo, the lead plaintiff in the landmarkproperty rights case. "I don't think this is what the United StatesSupreme Court justices had in mind when they made thisdecision."
Kelo's iconic pink home sat for more than a century on thatcurrently empty lot, just steps away from Connecticut's quaint buteconomically distressed Long Island Sound waterfront. Shortly aftershe moved in, in 1997, her house became ground zero in the nation'sbest-known land rights catfight.
New London officials decided they needed Kelo's land and thesurrounding 90 acres for a multimillion-dollar private developmentthat included residential, hotel conference, research anddevelopment space and a new state park that would compliment a new$350 million Pfizer pharmaceutical research facility.
Kelo and six other homeowners fought for years, all the way tothe U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, justices voted 5-4 against them,giving cities across the country the right to use eminent domain totake property for private development.
The decision was sharply criticized and created grassrootsbacklash. Forty states quickly passed new, protective rules andregulations, according to the National Conference of StateLegislatures. Some protesters even tried to turn the tables onnow-retired Justice David Souter, trying unsuccessfully in 2006 totake his New Hampshire home by eminent domain to build an inn.
In New London the city's prized economic development plan hasfallen apart as the economy crumbled.
The Corcoran Jennison Cos., a Boston-based developer, hadoriginally locked in exclusive rights to develop nearly the entirenorthern half of the Fort Trumbull peninsula.
But those rights expired in June 2008, despite multipleextensions, because the firm was unable to secure financing,according to President Marty Jones.
In July, backers halted fundraising for the project's crownjewel, a proposed $60 million, 60,000-square-foot Coast Guardmuseum.
The poor economy meant that donations weren't "keeping pace withexpenses," said Coast Guard Foundation president Anne Brengle.
The group hopes to resume fundraising in the future, shesaid.
Overall, proponents say about two-thirds of the 90-acre site isdeveloped, in part because of a 16-acre, $25 million state park.The other third of the land remains without the promisedresidential housing, office buildings, shops and hotel/conferencecenter facility.
"If there had been no litigation, which took years to work itsway through (the court system), then a substantial portion of thisproject would be constructed by now," said John Brooks, executivedirector of the New London Development Corp. "But we are victims ofthe economic cycle, and there is nothing we can do about that."
A new engineering tenant is moving into one of the officebuildings at 1 Chelsea St., and a bio tech firm with as many asfive employees is getting ready to move into an existing buildingon Howard Street, Brooks said.
Kelo, paid $442,000 by the state for her old property, now livesacross the Thames River in Groton, in a white, two-bedroom 1950sbungalow. Her beloved pink house was sold for a dollar and movedless than two miles away, where a local preservationist hasrefurbished it.
Kelo can see her old neighborhood from her new home, but shefinds the view too painful to bear.
"Everything is different, but everything is like still thesame," said Kelo, who works two jobs and has largely maintained alow profile since moving away. "You still have life to deal withevery day of the week. I just don't have eminent domain to dealwith every day of the week, even after I ate, slept and breathed itfor 10 years."
Although her side lost, Kelo said she sees the widerramifications of her property rights battle.
"In the end it was seven of us who fought like wild animals tosave what we had," she said. "I think that though we ultimatelydidn't win for ourselves, it has brought attention to what they didto us, and if it can make it better for some other people so theydon't lose their homes to a Dunkin' Donuts or a Wal-Mart, I thinkwe did some good."
Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice,argued Kelo's case before the Supreme Court. He calls "massivechanges that have happened in the law and in the publicconsciousness" the "real legacy" of Kelo and the otherplaintiffs.
The empty land means the city won a "hollow victory," hesaid.
"What cities should take from this is to run fleeing from whatNew London did and do economic development that is market-drivenand incorporate properties of folks who are truly committed totheir neighborhood and simply want to be a part of what happens,"he said.
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