Government To Seize Land For Science School

Melissa Bailey PhotoAfter New Haven’s school board failed to strike a deal with a holdout landowner, West Haven officials are speeding ahead with eminent domain proceedings to clear space for a permanent home for a fast-expanding regional science high school.

West Haven’s city council voted unanimously Monday night to pursue eminent domain for four remaining properties near the University of New Haven (UNH), just over the New Haven-West Haven line, where New Haven has been planning to build a permanent home for its Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS).

The school, which opened in 2008, is a collaboration between New Haven, West Haven and UNH.

West Haven now plans to head to court to wrest land away from one holdout property owner, Radio Communications Corporation, according to Timothy Yolen, a New Haven-based attorney the New Haven school board hired to negotiate on its behalf. The company, which could not be reached for comment, has been refusing to sell its land for under $2 million, Yolen said.

West Haven’s council approved the use of eminent domain in a 4-0 vote, with one councilman abstaining because his child has been accepted at ESUMS, according to Stephen DeCrescenzo, the council’s chairman.

Arguing that a public school is in the public interest, the city aims to use eminent domain to take ownership of the land it wants in exchange for the appraised value.

“We need this in West Haven,” DeCrescenzo said of the school. “The children of West Haven and New Haven are going to benefit from this drastically.” The school currently serves grades 6 to 10; it aims to expand each year until it serves 616 students in grades 6 to 12: 400 from New Haven, 125 from West Haven, and 91 from other towns.

Parents felt “a great deal of relief” when the vote was over, said ESUMS PTO President Bridget Cepalia. Cepalia joined a group of parents and students who lobbied West Haven’s City Council to approve the plan and showed up to watch Monday’s night vote.

“This has been so long in the coming,” she said. “For families that have been here since the beginning, they felt a great deal of frustration.” For years, parents were “waiting for the school to be built and we didn’t even have the land yet.”

“I don’t think anyone feels it’s an ideal situation to have to go out and exercise eminent domain,” she said, but she feels the city made “reasonable offers” and the process is a last resort to dealing with one holdout property owner.

Eminent domain proceedings will begin immediately, with plans to secure all the properties by the end of the year, Yolen said.

The school hatched in 2005 as a joint effort between New Haven, West Haven and the UNH to build the state’s first science-oriented public high school. The city got state approval in 2008 to pay for 95 percent of $66.5 million school. Amid problems securing the site, the city had to ask for an extension to the construction deadline; it now has until June 30, 2014 to break ground or lose funding.

New Haven, West Haven and UNH have now secured 20 of 24 properties needed for the school, according to Yolen. The site occupies a block of land on Waban, Rockview, and Daytona streets and Orange Avenue (around the central cluster of points on the map).

That site was always New Haven’s top choice, though the city had secured an option to buy an abandoned bowling alley across the street from UNH’s campus as a backup plan. 

The new site is a mix of university, commercial and residential properties. UNH gladly offered its properties. At other spots, New Haven had to coax homeowners to relocate.

“We tried to be generous,” Yolen said.

Douglas Newton (pictured at the top of this story) was one of the Rockview Street neighbors who agreed to sell their homes. Newton, at 34 Rockview St., spent months negotiating with the city over the price of his home, which was appraised at $150,000. He finally agreed to sell it for $265,000.

“He did a very good job at negotiating,” Yolen said. “He covered the value of the house, plus.”

The state will reimburse the city only for the properties’ appraised value (the highest of two independent appraisals), Yolen said. UNH agreed to step in as an intermediary and buy the properties, then turn them over to the city. The university also agreed to pay the difference between the sale price and the appraised value for all of the properties, Yolen said.

UNH’s role in buying the land is part of a memorandum of understanding recently approved by West Haven, New Haven and UNH. Click here to read it (beginning on page 32).

Yolen said the final cost of buying the 24 properties has yet to be determined: It will depend on final appraisals completed closer to the date of the sales.

And it will depend on how a Superior Court judge handles an expected eminent domain case.

Four properties remain to be acquired, Yolen said. The first three, 23 Daytona St. and 506 and 516 Orange Ave., all owned by Radio Communications Corporation. The owner asked over $2 million for the properties—far beyond the appraised value of around $300,000, according to Yolen.

The company wants to move a radio tower it owns across the street to the properties. And it wanted to appraise the land “as if it had a fully constructed radio tower.”

“We said you’ve gotta be kidding. Absolutely not,” Yolen said. “We don’t believe the Connecticut Siting Council nor the zoning regulations would ever permit your tower to be moved across the street.”

The fourth remaining lot, at 34 Rockview, belongs to a Brooklyn woman who does not live there and is under water on two mortgages there, Yolen said. The woman has signed an agreement to sell the house, but she needs eminent domain to kick in in order to transfer the title, he said. That’s because the amount of the mortgages far exceeds the value of the house, Yolen said. He said he suspects she was victim of some kind of mortgage fraud.

Monday’s vote marked a “milestone” in a difficult process of finding a site for the school, said Will Clark, New Haven schools’ chief operating officer.

He said the city hopes to acquire the land as soon as possible. The city has already hired architects to design the building. It now aims to begin construction “early next year,” Clark said. The school will take about two years to build.

The school’s new site will have modern science labs and will allow for a “tremendous collaboration” with UNH, where ESUMS students can take college credits, interact with college kids and professors and even earn scholarships to attend UNH, Clark said. The school will prepare kids for careers in math and science, which is “exactly the kind of program we should be investing in” for today’s economy.

“It certainly has been a long road, and a bit more complicated than any other project we’ve done,” Clark said, but the “work that went into the partnership” paid off. Now “all the dreams that everyone has had for the school can now begin to come true.”

Previous stories on ESUMS:

• Science School Bargaining Begins
City Strikes Deal For ESUMS Land
After Parents Fight Move, ESUMS Stays Put
Parents Oppose School’s Move
Science Magnet School Relocates Again
City Looks West For New School Site
After Layoffs, Schools Reshuffle
A Rush To Dig
A New Star School; Warnings About Others
Science High’s Ready, With An Arabic Twist

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posted by: PH on August 31, 2012  11:07am

Good for the school board.  No corporate interest, especially a falsely inflated value of a corporate property, should ever come before the public interest in providing education for our children.  I hope this corporation pays more in legal fees than its property is worth as it is being obstructionist and irrational.

posted by: jayfairhaven on August 31, 2012  4:36pm

i’d define obstructionism and irrationalism as stealing private land by government fiat, but hey, it’s not your house, right PH?

posted by: jayfairhaven on August 31, 2012  5:51pm

i realize that the property in question isn’t someone’s home, but it’s someone’s property nonetheless. if it were a church or non profit that didn’t want to sell for less than 2 million would you feel the same way?

posted by: DingDong on September 1, 2012  4:02pm

It’s not really “stealing” private land as the government has to pay for it.

posted by: HhE on September 1, 2012  10:21pm

Eminent Domain leaves a very bad taste in my mouth, but I accept it may be necessary for the greater good.

At least now I know why Atty. Yolen contributed contributed $150 to the Mayor’s reelection.  If he is getting paid at the same rate his partner gets for GAL work, that ccontributionis just under 26 minutes of work.

posted by: trainspotter on September 2, 2012  6:29am

This land owner was offered more than his properties were worth. He thought he could get rich on the backs of the taxpayers. It would have been “politically” easier to quietly pay him rather than go the publicly unpopular imminent domain route and I applaud all those involved for protecting the public’s interest in this matter. Every effort was made to come to reasonable terms and as you can see from those who did sell, they were well compensated. Greed exists on both sides of the fence.

posted by: robn on September 2, 2012  8:37am

Ordinarily I wouldn’t be sympathetic to a corporate holdout but in this case it sounds like the property was held for the strategic purposes of placing a. Owning allowed ( i think) radio tower which does add an economic dimension to the value.

posted by: jayfairhaven on September 2, 2012  8:45am

when an owner is compelled by force to give up property without their consent, it’s stealing. it doesn’t matter if the government thinks its offer is fair.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 2, 2012  2:11pm

People of West Haven.You better wake up.Your house may be next.In fact This same thing is what happen to people in Brooklyn New York with the Nets.

Why should people get to see plans? This isn’t a public project.”
—Bruce Ratner in Crain’s Nov. 8, 2009

Bruce Ratner Implies That There Was Indeed Something Wrong With How He Pursued Atlantic Yards.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 3, 2012  2:40pm

Imminent domain is a way of forcing a property owner to sell their property. Eminent domain does not allow a government to seize a property without payment based on the value of the house. It’s not exactly stealing, but it is an aggressive tool to force someone into selling their property even if they do not want to.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 3, 2012  3:43pm

@Jonathan Hopkins

Imminent domain is a way of forcing a property owner to sell their property.but it is an aggressive tool to force someone into selling their property even if they do not want to.

So this would be the same thing if the mob was shaking me down.

posted by: HhE on September 3, 2012  10:53pm

Not exactly threefifths.  No matter how repugnant, eminent domain has the rule of law and can be challenged in the courts (of which you seam to be fond of).  Being shaken down by the mob is always unethical and criminal.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 4, 2012  9:55am

challenged in the courts (of which you seam to be fond of.

Not fond of courts.But again there is a need.Case and Point Major Civil Rights Legislation won in courts.People have had there cases over turn in courts.I bet you if you get a speeding ticket,You will be using the court system.

posted by: HhE on September 4, 2012  3:54pm

Threefifths, assuming I was speeding, no I would not.  I would take responsibility and my medicine.