As the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. New London still reverberates through both state and national politics, another eminent domain case made it to the Connecticut’s high court this morning. This one is about the city of Norwalk trying to take car dealership. And this time, the law firm that represented the city in Kelo and argued in favor of a municipal seizure is representing the property owner, attempting to stop a taking.
The case that hit the Prometheus-frescoed chamber where the Connecticut Supreme Court sits in Hartford this morning was Maritime Ventures LLC v. City of Norwalk.The plaintiff owns a car dealership in Norwalk, within what the city designated as a redevelopment area in 1983. Norwalk’s redevelopment agency and its handpicked developer wants to seize Maritime’s property to widen the street, part of a bid to construct new office space and other amenities.In Kelo, the central issue turned on whether a municipality could seize non-blighted residential homes when the overall public purpose was economic development in a starved city. Both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts ruled that it could.Maritime is different. Here, plaintiff’s attorney Michael Taylor of the Hartford-based firm Horton, Shields and Knox argued that the city didn’t even consider integrating the car dealership into its redevelopment plans- it just decided that car dealers weren’t an approved type of business. That flies in the face of takings law, Taylor told the court, because the city has an obligation to attempt to include the specific property in its plan and can’t weasel out of it by just deciding that all car dealerships will be excluded. Sitting next to Taylor at the plaintiff’s table was Wesley Horton, a fellow law partner and the lawyer who argued for New London in the Kelo case. Horton’s firm won a judgment against the homeowners who were trying to save their properties.Attorneys for Norwalk and its developer, however, argued the law does not obligate the city to make such an attempt at integration. Instead, previous case law instructs the city must act reasonably, in good faith, and not abuse its power, but that’s it, argued Jonathan Bowman of Bridgeport-based Cohen and Wolf. The city’s plan to exclude car dealerships is certainly reasonable, Bowman said, because the area being developed already contains the Maritime Aquarium, and a heavily pedestrian area is not conducive to car dealers. Because the plaintiff bought his property in 2000- two years after the city amended its redevelopment plan to its current form- the car dealer knew full well the city’s plan, he said. On the flip side, the city can’t be held responsible for what happens to a property owner who buys into a redevelopment area after the city finishes its plan and makes it public, Bowman argued.“It’s hard to act in bad faith with someone who was not even there,” he said.But Taylor said the 1998 plan was a substantial revision to a previous redevelopment idea, meaning the city should have reevaluated all of its findings that the area was blighted. It didn’t, and thus the car dealer’s property should be spared, Taylor said.However, Bowman the goals of the new plan were the same, just some methods of implementation changed, and that shouldn’t necessitate an entirely new review of the area.