Published June 23. 2013 4:00AM
Three generations of Michael Cristofaro's family have at one time or another lived in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, so getting beyond the hurt of losing the family home to eminent domain has not been easy.
He's moved on, for sure, from the days when he would stand up at City Council meetings demanding that councilors give up their own homes, or cry as he watched a payloader tear through the rhododendrons as it razed the family home on Goshen Street. Cristofaro lives in Waterford now and has a 3-year-old son who brings him joy.
These days, when he returns to Fort Trumbull, the 70-plus acre peninsula on the Thames River that was leveled by the city for redevelopment, he's more sad than angry.
"We weren't good enough?'' Cristofaro asked on a warm June afternoon as he stood near a field of tall grasses and wildflowers where his house and others once stood.
Eight years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the city could take the property for economic development.
"We wanted to be part of it,'' he said. "That's what they didn't understand. It wasn't about money. It was about living here. This was our home."
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In the late 1990s, with around $80 million from the state, the city began a redevelopment project that included razing the worn-down neighborhood of single- and multi-family homes along with the bones of an abandoned federal research center at Fort Trumbull. Many home owners sold their land and moved on. Some properties were taken by eminent domain.
A hotel, restaurant, conference center, athletic center, bioscience office park and new housing were supposed to be built next to a new $300 million Pfizer Inc. office building. But eight years after the landmark Supreme Court decision, which expanded the parameters of eminent domain to include the taking of private property for future economic development, there is still no new construction in Fort Trumbull.
The fort itself, a 19th century structure that replaced defenses used against the British in the Revolutionary War, is now a state park, and a refurbished four-story office building that once was part of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center is occupied. The Italian Dramatic Club, a one-story pink stucco building that was saved from demolition, also is still there.
A housing proposal for 103 condominium rental units has stalled over a contract dispute, and no new plans are pending.
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Cristofaro was one of six plaintiffs in Kelo v. City of New London who fought the government takings; they lost and eventually were compensated for their land and forced out. The case put the city on the map. The details are taught at law schools and recently became an answer on "Jeopardy." The case was also featured in an episode of a recent PBS series, "Constitution USA," in which Cristofaro appeared.
Since the decision, 42 states have enacted legislation or passed ballot measures that limit the way eminent domain can be used, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2007, Connecticut limited the use of eminent domain. The state did not ban use of eminent domain for economic development but prohibited property from being taken solely to boost property taxes.
The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm that took on the Kelo case pro bono, said more than 16,000 homes and businesses have been saved since the Supreme Court decision.
"The Fort Trumbull debacle remains Exhibit A throughout the nation as to what happens when government abuses eminent domain and provides massive corporate welfare to private interests," said attorney Scott Bullock, of the institute, based in Arlington, Va.
Last year, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio issued an apology to former Fort Trumbull property owners and announced a restructuring of the New London Development Corp. The NLDC was renamed the Renaissance City Development Association, and earlier this month, the leadership of the board changed.
Linda Mariani, a lifelong resident of the city and an attorney, was elected president.
The mayor wants the land that was taken by eminent domain to be set aside and used only for public projects. Possibilities include a desalinization plant, a wind farm and a solar field. A municipal parking garage with ground-floor retail is also a possibility, he said.
Mariani said she is not so sure about putting up a parking lot where the houses once stood, but she acknowledged that it's time to move forward.
"We can't go backwards,'' she said. "We can't put it back the way it was."
But for Cristofaro, the latest apologies and organizational restructuring are not enough. He said he feels that he and other property owners were treated as if they were in the way of progress and had to go, no matter the cost.
"Why couldn't they have given the people of Fort Trumbull a little respect?'' he asked. "We would have loved to have lived near the park. ... We weren't good enough."
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Mariani, who has been on the development board since before the Supreme Court decision, wants to meet with members of the public to see how they feel about future development at the Fort.
"Ultimately, the people of New London will want to chart the course,'' she said.
In an effort to unite the city, City Councilor Adam Sprecace headed up a grassroots effort last year to bring in the Yale Urban Design Team to study the area and come up with a new plan.
"I've been trying to move forward and include as many people as possible,'' said Sprecace, who was elected to the council after the lawsuit was settled.
The Yale plan calls for a mixed-use neighborhood that highlights the Fort's historic significance and scenic vistas, and caters to pedestrians.
"The mayor is talking about environmentally friendly development and green technology, and I hope the Yale plan gets weaved in,'' Sprecace said.
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But as of now, nothing is happening at the site.
A groundbreaking for the first phase of the 103-unit, $24 million condominium project was postponed last month after a dispute over financing of $8 million for the first phase of the project. The developers, Irwin and Robert Stillman of Riverbank Construction, and the RCDA are headed for mediation.
Mariani is hoping the Riverbank project goes forward, but if it doesn't, she believes something else can happen.
"In the event the agreement with the Stillmans falls through entirely, I'd be hoping to expedite development in the area and follow through with at least some of the mayor's ideas of self-sustaining and green development,'' she said.
Cristofaro does not think any of the land should be used for housing, although the master plan for the area always included housing on the former Navy property in the neighborhood.
He's also not in favor of putting up a parking lot where houses once stood.
"They need to start fresh. They need a new board and a new outlook,'' he said. And the city needs to pass an ordinance saying it will never again use eminent domain for economic development, he said.
After the Fort Trumbull lawsuit, the Cristofaros settled with the city, accepting about $475,000 for the house, and asked for a plaque in Fort Trumbull to honor their mother, Margherita Cristofaro, who died in 2003.
Although she did not live in the house at the time - one of Cristofaro's brothers was there during the eminent domain fight - Michael Cristofaro said his mother always wanted the family to fight.
The Fort Trumbull house was the second property the family lost to eminent domain. In the 1970s, the family home on Woodbridge Street was taken so the city could build a seawall. The street is gone now and the seawall never was built.
The bronze plaque embedded in granite beside a sycamore tree on the banks of the Thames River, says in part that Margherita Cristofaro and her family "made significant contributions to the Italian-American community, sacrificing two family homes to the eminent domain process.''
"It still hurts,'' Cristofaro said. "This is sad. This is painful."
The only good that came out of the long fight, he said, was that people across the country realized how powerful government can get.
"And they got off their couches and did something,'' he said. "Because of our case, people have been allowed to stay in their homes.''