Supreme Court decision equates public benefit with public use

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- Susette Kelo was a divorced nurse who had raised five sons and had never owned any property when she spotted a little pink house in New London, Conn., that no one wanted.

It had been for sale for months. She stood in the empty living room while her Realtor ran around making a mental list of everything that was wrong with it. He tried to talk her out of it, Jeff Benedict, investigative journalist and author of "Little Pink House," told about 300 delegates at the Washington Farm Bureau meeting.

But Kelo bought the house.

"The first night she sat in a rocking chair on her porch, listening to water running by, and said it was the happiest day of her life," Benedict said.

A few days later, she read in the local newspaper that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer planned to build a research and development headquarters in New London.

In ensuing months, the city used eminent domain to force her and others from their homes to make room for Pfizer. She fought and eventually lost her battle in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In New London, only neighbors and the mayor stood by her side. The mayor and his wife had been arrested for blocking developers from tearing down houses.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided public benefit was akin to public use, that it's acceptable to take private property from one individual and give it to another if the public benefits with more tax revenue, Benedict said.

"It's rightly been called the most infamous decision of the court in the century," Benedict said. "Unlike Roe v. Wade, this doesn't split the country. Liberals and conservatives condemn this decision. It brought people together because it was wrong."

Kelo was scheduled to speak at the Farm Bureau conference, but couldn't make it. In her place was her former neighbor and co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, Michael Cristofaro. He told the story of his family losing its home twice in eminent domain cases. He told of intimidation from developers. He said he will keep telling his story to the day he dies even though some have told him to "shut up and move on."

"Five justices in black robes stole our right," he said. "And we need to let them know what they did was wrong."

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