OPINION: Eminent domain threatens Hartford’s future

Too many political leaders in Connecticut have yet to accept this reality: More government is not the answer. Needless laws, regulations, and other intrusions into our lives and relationships can be just as damaging as higher taxes and more public debt.

Clearly, Hartford’s leadership still doesn’t get it. A recent proposal by the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) to use eminent domain to take private property next to the XL Center provides ample evidence of continuing dysfunction.

Northland Investment Corp. constructed and operates the Hartford 21 tower, a 36-story residential facility on the southeast corner of the civic center block.  As part of the public-private partnership that made that construction possible, Northland received title to the XL Center’s atrium and adjacent retail space (known as the Trumbull Block).

CRDA now wants possession of that property.  Rather than negotiate an acceptable price, the agency is threatening seizure. No more alarming signal could be sent to potential investors in our capital city than this willingness to treat a private partner as the enemy, using an extraordinary government power casually and recklessly.

Eminent domain gives government the right to take private property when there’s a “compelling public interest.” Abuse of that power created a national scandal, when city officials in New London decided to seize and destroy a close-knit, waterfront neighborhood for the benefit of a multinational corporation. The subsequent battle, known as the Kelo case, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a decision that stunned many Constitutional scholars, the Court ruled against defenseless homeowners and the city prevailed—but the corporation left town anyway. The former neighborhood site is now a 90-acre dump for municipal debris.

That sorry saga hasn’t discouraged CRDA, which is empowered to use eminent domain without administrative direction, legislative approval, judicial oversight or public comment.  Behind the agency’s plan to take the Trumbull Block is the apparent conviction that a downtown arena is worth any sacrifice in wealth or liberty, including hundreds of millions of dollars for renovation, millions more each year in subsidies, and the forced seizure of private property.

Current state and municipal leaders refuse to see that the XL Center is not a solution but the problem. This outdated monolith occupies two big blocks in the center of the city, housing not one soul overnight. It sits empty all day long, and most evenings.

Occasional nocturnal visitors do little for Hartford. The city needs permanent residents, people with jobs and money, who enjoy an urban environment. As they come, demand for services will follow, not just restaurants and entertainment, but grocers, butchers, druggists, florists, newsstands—the whole big-city scene that generates the excitement people seek in a downtown.

What’s needed is what West Hartford created with Blueback Square: a mixed-use urban landscape, including an expansion of what Northland accomplished with Hartford 21. Rather than serving as an imposing barrier, the XL Center block could instead provide a vibrant pathway between the Union Station transportation center and the rest of the city.

The Malloy administration, CRDA, and the city powers that be are determined to pursue a hopelessly flawed plan for downtown Hartford. Their willingness to use eminent domain to enable a failed vision adds insult to injury.  It’s time for government to back off.

First, legislators and the next governor should strip the power of eminent domain from these faceless bureaucrats. Private property ownership is a fundamental right in America – and must be protected against rogue agencies and government overreach.

Then, let’s acknowledge the economic reality facing the XL Center, and allow market investment and consumer demand to shape the area. Heavy-handed government and costly utopian schemes will do nothing but drive private investment away.

State Senator Joe Markley represents Connecticut’s 16th Senatorial District, which includes the towns of Cheshire, Prospect, Southington, Waterbury and Wolcott.

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