After Stamford Charter Protections Axed, Owner of Curley’s Speaks Out on Eminent Domain

Curley's Diner in Stamford (CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – The eminent domain case of Curley’s, the diner that beat city hall, is widely known.

So it’s no surprise that the family that owns the long-beloved downtown diner has joined the fray over a thwarted attempt to restrain government’s ability to take private property for public use.

The tiny family-owned Curley’s on West Park Place is surrounded by large developments, evidence that it has been tested by eminent domain. A member of the family, Dennis LoDolce, was among the speakers at last week’s public hearing on changes proposed for Stamford’s governing document, the charter.

One of the changes would have laid more requirements on city officials seeking to take private property for a public purpose.

Eminent domain, LoDolce said during the hearing, “is represented as a solution to expedite development, but it poses a significant threat to the fundamental principles of democracy and individual property rights.”

His family, which has owned Curley’s Diner since 1976, “has experienced the devastating consequences of eminent domain, not once but twice,” LoDolce said. “In the 1980s the city seized half of our property under the disguise of building a road from West Park Place to Winthrop Place. The road was never constructed; it’s a parking lot now.”

In the early 2000s, “we faced another eminent domain battle when the city and the (Urban Redevelopment Commission)  attempted to seize our property, again, for private development of an apartment” building, LoDolce said.

The family, led by sisters Maria Aposporos and Eleni Begetis, fought the city’s eminent domain order and won in state Supreme Court in 2002. The projects city officials and developers wanted to build went up around the single-story silver diner striped in red.

“It’s a painful reminder of how easily the government can infringe on our property rights and disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hardworking individuals,” LoDolce said.

Stricter standards outlawed

He spoke in favor of the changes proposed by members of the Charter Revision Commission, who recommended higher standards for seizing private property. 

Commission members said the city should require approval of the mayor and a two-thirds vote of the entire membership of the Planning Board, Board of Finance and Board of Representatives. They also proposed requirements for a public hearing and several public notices before a property is seized.

As the charter reads now, city officials may condemn private property “for municipal purposes” after “payment of just compensation” to the owner, with the approval of the mayor and a majority vote of the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives.

Despite the work of the commission – formed nearly a year and a half ago to execute a once-a-decade review as the state requires – the lower standard will stand.

It’s because on June 7, the day the commissioners handed over their proposed changes to the Board of Representatives for deliberation and approval, lawmakers in Hartford passed a massive capital spending bill that had tucked in it 24 lines prohibiting town commissions from changing their charters on eminent domain and other zoning matters.

The prohibitions address the charter changes proposed in Stamford, but they affect all 169 municipalities in Connecticut.

No one in Hartford is saying how the new law happened, but Mayor Caroline Simmons, a former state representative, told on paper that she “advocated” for it.

Besides the proposal on eminent domain, the new law negates charter commission proposals that would have:

  1. Increased the vote threshold for selling public land

  2. Allowed citizens to appeal a zoning decision to the Board of Representatives by gathering 300 signatures across the city instead of in the immediate affected area

  3. Required planning and zoning boards to expand public hearings

Now, if towns in Connecticut want to change their charters in any of those respects, they have to ask the state legislature to do it.

‘It erodes the trust’

LoDolce said during the hearing that the Stamford Charter Revision Commission proposals would have established better “checks and balances … to prevent abuse of power.” 

Negating them “opens the door to potential misuse and manipulation of the eminent domain process, putting property owners at a great disadvantage,” LoDolce said. “Without proper oversight and accountability, there will be a higher risk of unjust takings, favoritism and corruption.“

Simmons has said the stricter measures proposed by the commission would discourage private investment, stunt economic growth and shrink the housing stock in Stamford.

During the hearing, the mayor’s critics lambasted her for advocating to powerful friends in the state legislature to surreptitiously pass a law instead of letting the charter revision process play out in Stamford. 

Under state law, the Board of Representatives must consider the commission’s proposals, and the ones they approve must go on the ballot for voters to decide. Now some of the most significant proposals have been made illegal before voters can consider them, Simmons’ critics have said.

City representatives and charter commission members said they had no idea Simmons was advocating in Hartford to abolish the measures on the table in Stamford. Four state representatives from Stamford, all Democrats like Simmons, said they voted for the bond bill not knowing it contained the charter prohibitions. State Rep. Matt Blumenthal of Stamford said he saw the text on June 7.

It was the last day of the legislature when, state representatives said, the budget and other massive bills were still pending and the midnight deadline was looming, making it easy for “rats” to slip through.

LoDolce said property ownership is “an essential pillar of a free society” because it allows “personal autonomy and economic stability.”

It’s why his family of Greek immigrants fought decades ago to keep the little diner on West Park Place, he said.

With the first condemnation in the 1980s, the family did not dispute what the city offered and gave up their land. But when Urban Redevelopment Commission officials again condemned the family property in 1999, they offered Aposporos and Begetis $233,000 for the diner and the land, according to newspaper accounts from the time. 

The developer, however, was going to pay the city $4.6 million, according to news accounts. The URC offered to rent Aposporos and Begetis space in the new development, but the sisters said they could not afford the price.

They took the matter to state Superior Court and were rejected, but ultimately succeeded on appeal to state Supreme Court.

It was stressful and expensive, LoDolce said. “The viability of our business was put at risk,” he said. 

Charter Revision Commission members have said during their meetings that they wanted to tighten eminent domain procedures because they most often affect working-class people who don’t have the means to undertake legal battles with the city.

Eminent domain “may promise expedited development,” but if it is unchecked “the price we pay is erosion of our democratic principles,” LoDolce said during the hearing. “When we allow our government to (operate) without adequate scrutiny, it erodes the trust between citizens and their elected officials.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.