This Land is Your Land, This Land is… Whose Land?

Eminent domain property rights explained.

When IHS alums Courtney Moorehead Balaker and Ted Balaker decided to adapt Susette Kelo’s harrowing, real-life story of property rights and eminent domain abuse into a film, they started with an idea: people. To the Balakers, the heart of this story was the people –Susette and her neighbors– and conveying the life and homes they were fighting for, and would ultimately lose, in a nearly decade-long battle.

The saga that would unfold around this case is a dramatic one, and one that is expertly told through their new film “Little Pink House,” which the Balakers pre-screened for IHS staff earlier this week. The film explains the often murky concept of eminent domain and it’s potential to be abused, in easy-to-understand terms while championing classical liberal ideas in a mainstream, Hollywood package.

Who Owns What?

The right to own property seems fundamental enough. The premise is as old as our country itself, and a right many have fought and died for. But lines between our personal owners’ rights and that of our government can become blurred, particularly in regards to eminent domain.

Eminent domain falls under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and is defined as the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.

Typically, when exercising eminent domain, the government deems the specific space viable for public use. This would include seizing land in order to build a hospital, or a bridge; something everyone could use, and that there is a specific need for. That is until Kelo’s controversial Supreme Court case in 2005.

Private vs. Public

In 1998, the pharmaceutical conglomerate Pfizer had built a large plant in New London, Connecticut, next to the small, blue collar neighborhood of Fort Trumbull. Fort Trumbull was a modest area with a great view directly on the Thames River. Believing someone else could make “better use” of the land, the City of New London wanted Pfizer to re-develop the plot and sought to use its power of eminent domain and transfer those rights to the New London Development Corporation (NLDC).

The catch, NLDC was a private entity, and the residents of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood would be asked to vacate their homes via the abstract claim that “economic development” constituted public use.

The Little Pink House that Stood

Residents of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood were asked to leave their homes, and even though they were offered compensation, to many, this ran deeper than money – it was a matter of principle. Many of the residents had lived in the historic, older homes all their lives, and were not eager to lose their property or their way of life. The small community began to unite and rally against eminent domain abuse and seek to take their case to court.

Susette Kelo, an EMT and home owner of a small, pink colored house in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, emerged as the leader in the fight against the property seizure. Alongside Kelo, was her lawyer, and former Institute for Humane Studies alum, Scott Bullock. Together, they took the case of Susette’s little pink house all the way to the Supreme Court.

Her case, and the house, made national headlines, sparking widespread debate and public outcry. Many Americans were naturally concerned at the notion that a private entity could be given the power of eminent domain rights by the government. If true, then all homeowners would potentially be at risk of losing their property based on the whims that their privately-owned land could be “made better use of.”

The Big Screen

Written and directed by IHS alums Courtney Moorehead Balaker, and produced by Ted Balaker, “Little Pink House” provides an engaging in-depth discussion on eminent domain abuse, a controversial court case that changed laws nationwide, and how one loss can transform into a major win overall.

The film stars Catherine Keener (Get Out, Capote), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love, Grey Gardens), and Giacomo Baessato, with a screenplay adapted from Jeff Benedict’s book, Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage. “Little Pink House” premiers in select theaters around the country Friday, April 20, 2018. You can also request a screening near you.

In the end, the efforts of Susette Kelo and Scott Bullock became instrumental in protecting more Americans from eminent domain abuse. Though the court ruled in favor of the City of New London, with a 5-4 decision, several states and legislatures chose to strengthen protections for property rights as a direct result. Kelo and Bullock helped to pave the way for change, by fighting for her house, and ultimately, yours too.

Photo credit: Korchula Productions and Brightlight Pictures.

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