Group presses case against demolition at Fort Trumbull

Source: http://www.theday.com, June 15, 2011
By: Karen Florin

Conservancy claims work was harmful to environment

The excavators and wrecking balls are long gone from the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, but the demolition of dozens of homes by the New London Development Corp. is still being litigated in a city courtroom.

The heavy machinery’s presence was vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling, in Kelo v. City of New London, that governments could use eminent domain to take private property for economic development. Houses and small businesses in the working-class neighborhood – some of which the city said were blighted – were leveled to make way for new construction.

With the city’s development plan still evolving in the midst of an economic downturn, Fort Trumbull Conservancy LLC, a privately funded nonprofit organization, is pressing its claim that the demolition was harmful to the environment.

“A building does not have to be torn into toothpicks and destroyed,” testified Michael Cristofaro, whose father’s house at 53 Goshen St. was demolished in 2007. “There’s no reason for a claw to come in and rip it apart.”

During the demolition, dust was sent into the air and into other homes, Cristofaro testified. Idling heavy equipment polluted the air and materials from the homes were needlessly taken to landfills rather than reused, he said.

Fort Trumbull Conservancy LLC v. Antonio H. Alves et al. is one of two lawsuits that remain of 10 that were brought by the conservancy. The conservancy initially brought the suit in 2001, seeking an injunction to stop the demolition. The case went up to the state Supreme Court twice while various legal issues, including the conservancy’s standing to bring such a suit, were argued. Ten years later, Judge Joseph Q. Koletsky is hearing testimony and will decide whether the conservancy has proven that the demolition process was harmful to the environment.

The trial is expected to last up to five days.

Conservancy attorneys Scott W. Sawyer and Lorna J. Dicker said the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act does not allow a plaintiff to obtain monetary damages except for attorneys fees, but added that the judge could issue an order requiring that the court oversee any future demolition by the NLDC.

Testifying Tuesday were Sarah Steffian, a principal member and supporter of the conservancy, who said she has spent $1 million to $2 million on lawyers and expert witnesses in the Fort Trumbull cases.

Next, NLDC Executive Director John Brooks explained the demolition process, which forbade the removal of fixtures, windows and other potentially valuable items before demolition. He said contractors worked the resale value of the materials into their bids. He also described the use of fire hoses for dust suppression and at one point testified that an estimated $25 million to $30 million was spent on environmental remediation in Fort Trumbull.

Kathleen Mitchell, a local activist and member of the conservancy, broke down briefly as she described watching crews demolish the homes while their former occupants paced back and forth.

“It took no time at all,” she said of the Picinich home at 237 Howard St. “As I remember it, that machine just smashed into the home and pulled it apart and it fell into pieces.”

What was a home became a pile of junk, she said, and the “claw” scooped it into a truck.

Sawyer said the conservancy will call experts on the environment and recycling when the trial resumes today. Attorney Jeffrey T. Londregan, representing the city, and Edward B. O’Connell, representing NLDC, have been cross-examining the witnesses and plan to call their own experts.

Meanwhile, the city and NLDC say they have not abandoned the project. The city has chosen River Bank Construction to develop 80 to 100 townhouses in Fort Trumbull and is working on a proposal to build a marina in the neighborhood.

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