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JEFF JACOBY

The battle of Fort Trumbull

IT BEGAN WITH phone calls from real estate agents urging him to sell his house. He told them it wasn't for sale - not when he'd lovingly rebuilt the place from the bottom up, not after his family had been living on this street near the Thames River for more than a century. But the agents kept calling, pressing him to sell.

The calls grew menacing. When he asked the agents whom they represented, they wouldn't say. But if he didn't accept their offer, they told him, the city would condemn his house and take it by eminent domain. Then he would get even less than they were offering. He was going to lose his house either way, they said, so he might as well sell it now.

It wasn't only his house they were after. They were calling everyone in the neighborhood, telling them all the same thing: Sell now before your house is taken. Most of his neighbors sold. He dug in his heels.

By the time the wreckers showed up, the identity of the party so intent on acquiring the whole riverfront was no longer a mystery. But by then it was too late. Seven homes on his street - and dozens nearby - were demolished. His own house, as he had been warned, was condemned. An official letter notified him that his house was being taken through eminent domain and that he had until May 1 to vacate the premises.

It reads like the plot of a Mafia movie: Mobsters with City Hall connections muscle their way into valuable real estate. But there is nothing fictional here. What happened to Matt Dery - that's his story above - and six other homeowners in New London, Conn., is the subject of a lawsuit that opened in Connecticut Superior Court this week. At the heart of their suit is a simple question: Is there any limit to the power of eminent domain?

The plaintiffs live in Fort Trumbull, a blue-collar section of New London rich in history . For much of the 20th century, it was a magnet for Italian immigrants, but over the years its fortunes had declined. Plagued by a foul-smelling sewer plant and located next to a contaminated mill site, Fort Trumbull was not a part of town to inspire covetous looks.

But that was before Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, decided in 1998 to build its world research headquarters along the river just south of Fort Trumbull. City officials were ecstatic at landing a Fortune 100 company; the mayor called it "the greatest thing that's ever happened to New London." To capitalize on Pfizer's arrival, the city charged the New London Development Corp. with clearing out the 90 adjoining acres - the Fort Trumbull neighborhood - and replacing the homes and shops there with more lucrative development: offices, a conference center, upscale condominiums, a hotel.   Continued...

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