State Takes Family's Land To Build Highway, But Won't Return It After Road Project Dies

By the force of its eminent domain authority, the state Department of Transportation took 11.3 acres from an Andover couple 27 years ago for construction of the then-planned Route 6 expressway from Bolton to Windham.

Now that expressway project is dead — but the DOT still won't let Carolyn Sheehan, now 89, widowed, and in a wheelchair, repurchase the Andover property to reassemble a 50-acre wooded tract that had been in her family for about a century.

"I'd like to buy it back. We've always wanted to," Sheehan said of the half-mile strip of land — which, as now held by the state, blocks her remaining property from direct frontage on Wheeling Road.

"They took it without asking," Sheehan said. At the conclusion of 1987 condemnation proceedings, the Sheehans received a Superior Court award of $19,100 for their property — about $1,690 an acre.

"They said either take it or leave it," she said. "We had to take it."

Sheehan spoke by phone Thursday from her home on Wheeling Road, near the land taken by the DOT. Her son, Michael Sheehan of Glastonbury, said Carolyn Sheehan is in a wheelchair with round-the-clock health aides. He said the family would like to put the property back together, giving them access to the road, for reasons including the possible sale of some of it if the money is needed to care for his mother.

But even though the DOT admits that the expressway is dead — after decades of fighting over environmental issues — it still is sitting on the property it took from the Sheehans. The agency is also holding 415 additional acres that it acquired in the 1980s and 1990s in Bolton, Coventry and Andover — all for what would have been a high-speed connector between Bolton and an existing piece of superhighway running east from Coventry to Windham.

Other people besides Sheehan have expressed interest in buying back land that the DOT condemned over the years, but the DOT has shown little interest in the desires of the citizens it took land from. Instead, it is taking its time in figuring out what to do with the acreage under a comprehensive approach that supposedly would consider such factors as local governments' possible use of the land and "green" open space.

The trouble for the Sheehans and others is that years after it became evident that the expressway would never be built, the DOT has barely begun its deliberations about what to do with the land.

"The CT DOT is reviewing any and all options as to whether the corridor properties should be kept for transportation purposes," a department spokesman, Kevin Nursick, said Thursday.

By "transportation purposes," Nursick didn't mean a highway. The possibilities are more in the realm of a "greenway" with bicycle paths, he said — but, when asked for any planning documents that have been generated toward that end, he said there are none.

The state's environmental protection agency "will participate" in the DOT's planning, and a spokesman said Friday that "our initial look at the properties involved shows there could be some that are suited for use by the public for outdoor recreational opportunities."

But critics say that this is the latest example of the government misusing its power of eminent domain to deprive Connecticut citizens of their property.

"It's totally unfair that they don't have access to that property," said Edith Prague, the state's commissioner of aging, who tried unsuccessfully to help the Sheehans in 2012 while she was still serving in the state Senate. "It was their property to begin with, and they should let them get it back."

It's wrong for the government to wield its power to condemn land, justifying its seizure of property with a specific public purpose, and then to use that seized land for something else, Prague said.

As a senator representing the Sheehans' district, Prague had the family property listed in a 2012 "conveyance" bill under which the state disposes of excess properties. The bill would have let them buy back the acreage at the fair market value, which was $57,000 at the time. But other legislators, who believed that this was an asset that local officials should carefully consider using for public purposes, blocked the proposal.

Such excess-property "conveyance" bills are passed annually — and Prague said the 11.3 acres should be inserted in this year's bill so the Sheehan family can buy back the land at current-day market value.

Abusing Power?

Questions about the DOT's handling of the expressway land are hardly the only ones to arise about eminent domain in Connecticut.

The state made national headlines a decade ago in the New London v. Kelo case — in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 narrowly upheld the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another to further economic development. The New London case was widely considered an abuse of government authority — a power to deprive citizens of property and disrupt their lives for generations, a power that critics say is so strong that it needs to be used only sparingly.





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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