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The Little Pink House Movie: A True Story of the Horrors of Eminent Domain

By Mike Bosak

The movie Little Pink House is a 2017 American-Canadian biographical drama written and directed by Courtney Balaker and starring Catherine Keener as Susette Kelo. It is based on the events related to Kelo v. City of New London, a U.S. Supreme Court case in which Kelo unsuccessfully sued the city of New London, Connecticut for their controversial use of eminent domain. Jeff Benedict wrote an account of the case in a 2009 book, Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage.

It recently ran at the Rome Capitol Theatre Arts Center and was so popular that additional shows were added.

Kelo v. City of New London, (545 U.S. 469 – 2005) was a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States involving the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development. In a 5–4 decision, the Court held that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified private redevelopment plans as a permissible “public use” under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The case arose in the context of condemnation by the city of New London, Connecticut, of privately owned real property in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, so that it could be used as part of a “comprehensive redevelopment plan.” However, the private developer, Pfizer Inc. was unable to obtain financing and abandoned the redevelopment project, leaving the land as an undeveloped empty lot. Pfizer Inc. is an American pharmaceutical conglomerate headquartered in New York City, with its research headquarters in Groton, Connecticut. It is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

This case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States from a decision by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in favor of the City of New London. The owners, including lead plaintiff Susette Kelo, sued the city in Connecticut courts, arguing that the city had misused its eminent domain power.

Kelo was the first major eminent domain case heard at the Supreme Court since 1984. In that time, states and municipalities had slowly extended their use of eminent domain, frequently to include economic development purposes. In the Kelo case, Connecticut had a statute allowing eminent domain for “economic development” even in the absence of blight. There was also an additional twist in that the development corporation was ostensibly a private entity; thus the plaintiffs argued that it was not constitutional for the government to take private property from one individual or corporation and give it to another, if the government was simply doing so because the repossession would put the property to a use that would generate higher tax revenue.

On June 23, 2005, the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled in favor of the City of New London.

Kelo v. City of New London did not establish entirely new law concerning eminent domain. Although the decision was controversial, it was not the first time “public use” had been interpreted by the Supreme Court as “public purpose”. In the majority opinion, Justice Stevens wrote the “Court long ago rejected any literal requirement that condemned property to be put into use for the general public.” Thus precedent played an important role in the 5–4 decision of the Supreme Court. The principal dissent was issued on 25 June 2005 by Justice O’Connor, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas. The dissenting opinion suggested that the use of this taking power in a reverse Robin Hood

The controversy was eventually settled when the city paid substantial additional compensation to the homeowners and agreed to move Kelo’s home to a new location. The land was never deeded back to the original homeowners, most of whom have left New London for nearby communities.[2] Three years after the Supreme Court case was decided, the Kelo house was dedicated after being relocated to 36 Franklin Street, a site close to downtown New London. ]Susette Kelo, however, has moved to a different part of Connecticut.

In spite of repeated efforts, the redeveloper (who stood to get a 91-acre waterfront tract of land for $1 per year was unable to obtain financing, and the redevelopment project was abandoned. As of the beginning of 2010, the original Kelo property was a vacant lot, generating no tax revenue for the city. In the aftermath of 2011’s Hurricane Irene, the now-closed New London redevelopment area was turned into a dump for storm debris such as tree branches and other vegetation.

Pfizer, whose employees were supposed to be the clientele of the Fort Trumbull redevelopment project, completed its merger with Wyeth, resulting in a consolidation of research facilities of the two companies. Pfizer chose to retain the Groton campus on the east side of the Thames River, closing its New London facility in late 2010 with a loss of over 1000 jobs. That coincided with the expiration of tax breaks on the New London site that would have increased Pfizer’s property tax bill by almost 400 percent.

The land where Susette Kelo’s little pink house once stood remains undeveloped. The proposed hotel-retail-condo “urban village” has not been built. And earlier this month, Pfizer Inc. announced that it is closing the $350 million research center in New London that was the anchor for the New London redevelopment plan, and will be relocating some 1,500 jobs.

The final cost to the city and state for the purchase and bulldozing of the formerly privately held property was $78 million. The promised 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million a year in tax revenues had not materialized. The area remains an empty lot.

Public reaction to the decision was highly unfavorable. Much of the public viewed the outcome as a gross violation of property rights and as a misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment, the consequence of which would be to benefit large corporations at the expense of individual homeowners and local communities. As a result, many states changed their eminent domain laws. Prior to the Kelo decision, only seven states specifically prohibited the use of eminent domain for economic development except to eliminate blight. Since the decision, forty-four states have amended their eminent domain laws, although some of these changes are cosmetic. The New York Times editorial board agreed with the ruling, calling it “a welcome vindication of cities’ ability to act in the public interest.” The Washington Post’s editorial board also agreed with the ruling, writing, “… the court’s decision was correct… New London’s plan, whatever its flaws, is intended to help develop a city that has been in economic decline for many years.”

The Kelo fiasco eventually cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, with nothing to show for it. The “carefully vetted” municipal plans that formed the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision proved to be illusory. Eventually, the City of New London extended an apology to Susette Kelo and her neighbors, and so did one of the Connecticut Supreme Court Justices who voted for the city.

On June 23, 2006, the first anniversary of the original decision, President George W. Bush issued an executive order instructing the federal government to restrict the use of eminent domain. However, since eminent domain is most often exercised by local and state governments, the presidential order may thus have a little overall effect.

Prior to Kelo, eight states specifically prohibited the use of eminent domain for economic development except to eliminate blight: Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Washington. As of June 2012, 42 states had enacted some type of reform legislation in response to the Kelo decision. Of those states, 22 enacted laws that severely inhibited the takings allowed by the Kelo decision, while the rest enacted laws that place some limits on the power of municipalities to invoke eminent domain for economic development. The remaining eight states have not passed laws to limit the power of eminent domain for economic development.

This story was primarily derived from Wikipedia sources. The parallels to the ongoing saga of the proposed downtown hospital are staggering.

To date, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute has not booked Little Pink House to be shown in its independent film series. I would urge you to contact MWPAI (315-797-0000) and ask that they add this very important film to their MWPAI Film Series in the near future. This is a movie that does not have a happy ending, but nonetheless is one that all of us should experience.


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