This week’s FROM WALLINGFORD is written by my counterpart on the column – Stephen Knight.
Eminent domain is the third rail of politics in Wallingford. There is no more thankless task for the public official here than to request a rational discussion of its use, for he has thus waded into a political swamp that is almost impossible to navigate. Within minutes, any sought-after calm, methodical discussion of the subject quickly disintegrates.
Which is why you saw otherwise lucid and articulate elected officials rhetorically head for the exits when asked about the use of eminent domain to force a conclusion of negotiations over the 10.3-acre Chichowski parcel they voted to purchase some months back. Never mind that the discussion took place in executive session. Their real reluctance to speak to this issue springs from their honest fear that no matter what is said, how articulately it is stated, or how logically the argument is made, they will be accused of being insensitive, power-hungry, rights-stealing political thugs that would steal bread from the mouths of babies if given half a chance.
This predicament is the result of two factors, one uniting and the other divisive: 1) the Kelo vs. City of New London decision having aroused the inherent skepticism Americans have of governmental power that is part of our political DNA and 2) a bit of recent history here in town when the subject last arose.
First of all, the Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. City of New London sent a shockwave through the national political psyche. To most Americans, the decision legitimized the notion that government power may be used to seize the property of one private party and turn it over to another private party. The concept of “public purpose” was absurdly expanded at the expense of our Constitutionally-guaranteed right of due process, giving rise to a legitimate hypersensitivity to and skepticism of government and its use of power over the individual.
It is worth noting that is was a 5-4 decision, with the conservative, originalist justices decrying the decision of the liberal, Constitution-as-an-evolving-document majority. The positive we can take from this decision is that many states, including ours, have rewritten their eminent domain statutes in such a way as to prevent a recurrence of this travesty.
Secondly, the last time that eminent domain was raised here as an issue was a few years ago when the mayor, in an effort to do some long term land use planning for the town, sought to survey property in the northeast corner of the town. It was thought that possibly, in the distant future, expansion of the I-5 zone allowing industrial parks might take place assuming [note carefully] that this outcome might be the desire of the property owners at that time. At the mere mention of this request, the mayor’s primary political opponent at the time, to further his own narrow political career interests, weighed in, accusing the mayor of attempting to condemn their property. Through blatant distortion of the real issue at hand, he shamelessly manipulated the property owners into believing that they were in danger of having their property taken from them. The discussions in the Town Council were a sad three-ring circus, with the frightened, lied-to, trusting property owners railing against the innocuous survey request while he stood in the back of the auditorium smugly viewing his handiwork. It was politics at its worst, and it has poisoned the well of discussion of land use in that area to this day.
So this is the table that has been set for any discussion of eminent domain in Wallingford. Somewhere there is a balance between our individual rights as property owners and the responsibility of the community to plan its future. We can find this balance, but only if we are willing to approach it as the sophisticated, complex topic that it is. Those who will be living in our town fifty years from now are depending on our ability to do so.