Burlington and Eminent domain

Yesterday, May 17th was the anniversary of a low point in Burlington’s history, the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Champlain Street Urban Renewal project. Homes and small businesses were taken by the City of Burlington in eminent domain, calling them slums or blighted areas. On May 17th, 1966, the first homes were knocked down for the new commercial development, with square blocks of residential homes & small businesses eventually being reduced to rubble.

For those that watch the Channel 3’s 6 o’clock news the past couple of nights, you may recall their coverage marking the anniversary of the project; the story was entitled A Neighborhood Lost.
For those that missed it, please feel free to read the links in this entry & watch the video coverage online at the WCAX site – Part 1 and Part 2
For those who would like to know a more personal perspective about this from those families who were displaced, there is also a DVD available on loan at Fletcher Free Library, only 30 minutes long, called the Champlain Street Urban Renewal project. For those new to Burlington, or those that are not aware of Burlington’s history, I highly recommend that everyone watch the DVD to see the personal result of eminent domain.

Here are a few main points of the project From Ch. 3’s coverage:

  • Before Urban Renewal, all of the streets ran straight through.157 families lived in the 27-acre urban renewal district, which stretched along the Battery, College, Pine and Pearl streets. Whole streets disappeared in the process, including several blocks of South Champlain Street.
  • In order to knock down the old neighborhood in 1966, Urban Renewal required the use of eminent domain– the taking of private property. At the time officials believed– and still believe today– that this was for the betterment of the community.
  • Like other cities around the country, Burlington used Urban Renewal to buy out property owners under eminent domain. Some fought the taking of their homes in court– and ultimately lost.
  • By June of 1968, over two years later, the neighborhood had been leveled, the demolition complete
  • Forty years later, some say Urban Renewal was not the best policy, given the widespread demolition and dislocation. Community & Economic Development Director Michael Monte told Channel 3, “You know, frankly it was a mistake, broadly, as a policy…[today] We would not come close to bulldozing an entire neighborhood”
  • Burlington has not used the power of eminent domain since Urban Renewal, although, like other municipalities, it has the power to condemn properties. The city has used the threat of eminent domain to obtain properties for public projects like the long-delayed Southern Connector.
  • Sam Matthews of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. said, “…the methodology might not have been the best. But this last piece, the hotel, is, I believe, going to ensure a sustainability to this community. Could it have been done better? Yeah. Has it been effective? It would appear so.”

You’d think that the government would realize their mistake, and would stay away from this type of procedure, but eminent domain is happening even still today. On June 23rd, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government seizing private homes in New London, CT, in order for a Pfizer office building to be developed. The case has come to be known nationwide as the Kelo v. New London case. Luckily, some non-profit organizations such as the Institute for Justice are helping homeowners that are being pressured to give up their homes.

So, again, if you haven’t seen either the Channel 3 coverage or the Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project DVD, I would recommend that you and anyone you know: friends, family, coworkers, etc. see the coverage, discuss this issue, and pass the word along, as it is still a viable option for the government to use.

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