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Welcome to Hotel Souter? Eminent Domain Ruling Triggers Backlash

Wed August 24, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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WEARE, NH (AP) Near the foot of an unmarked, dead-end dirt road sits a humble, mud-colored farmhouse. A sign on a mailbox jutting from a tilted post spells “SOUTER.”

Through the years, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter has stuck to his family’s home in the central New Hampshire town of Weare, population 8,500. A bachelor, Souter has lived for decades on the 8-acre property, undisturbed among neighbors whose yards are strewn with rusting farm equipment and old pickup trucks.

The house, more than 200 years old, is one of the few remnants of the original East Weare village, which was seized 45 years ago to make way for a dam.

Today, a California man angered by Souter’s support of a recent court decision favoring government power to seize private property by eminent domain wants to seize Souter’s farmhouse to build a luxury hotel in this rural area approximately 15 mi. away from Concord, the state capitol.

“We would act just as these cities have been acting in seizing properties. We would give Souter the same sort of deal that the cities have been giving them,” said Logan Darrow Clements, of Los Angeles.

In June, Souter was one of five justices who sided with the city of New London, CT, in a dispute with homeowners who protested the city’s seizure of property for a private hotel and convention center, office space and condominiums next to Pfizer Inc.’s new research headquarters.

The city argued tax revenues and new jobs would benefit the public. The Pfizer complex was built, but seven homeowners challenged the rest of the development in court.

The Supreme Court’s February ruling against them prompted many states to examine their eminent domain laws. Some considered legislation to limit or block local governments’ power to seize private property for commercial development.

In August, New Hampshire senators will convene a task force to scrutinize eminent domain laws. A recent University of New Hampshire poll reported 93 percent of state residents oppose the taking of private land through eminent domain for private development.

Clements has never been to Weare, but is a member of the Free State Project, the libertarian movement that chose “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire as its promised land and wants to move 20,000 followers here.

He knows his hotel plan is hard to take seriously.

“That’s sort of the story of my life: Nobody takes me seriously until I do something,” the 1992 University of Rochester business school graduate said. “We will be taken seriously when we make a formal presentation to the powers that be in Weare,” he said, adding that he is talking to several development consultants.

He said his mission, like his long-shot bid for governor of California in 2003, is rooted in his passion for objectivism, a philosophy of free-will capitalism embodied in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged.’

“The reason I ran was to express the ideas of objectivist political philosophy, which is we should have a voluntary society where people interact with each other through trade, not through the initiation of force,” Clements said. He got 274 votes.

After college, Clements ran an online, venture capital marketplace and started a magazine on the subject. Alongside updates about his “Lost Liberty Hotel” proposal, Clements’ Web site features pitches for “The Lexington League,” a reality TV show that would expose “virtually untold stories of government abuse around the world.”

Souter has declined to comment on the matter. Clements said he’s heard from thousands of people nationwide interested in investing or staying at the hotel. Town Clerk Evelyn Connor has had to return checks from people wishing to donate to a hotel construction fund. Clements’ announcement also inspired a copycat proposal from townspeople who want to turn Souter’s land into a park commemorating the U.S. Constitution.

Connor said it’s all a little much for a town where the biggest excitement of the year usually is the Weare Patriotic Celebration, which this year featured an American Legion chicken barbecue, carnival rides and a men-versus-women softball game.

“We just got a Dunkin’ Donuts,” she said.

Other town officials agree.

“It was the general consensus that we were not interested in taking anyone’s property,” said Laura Buono, head of Weare’s board of selectmen. She said board members are willing to review any formal proposal Clements submits.

But in a state where people fiercely protect their right to local control over land and government, many said the nuisance is Souter’s just desserts.

“People around here don’t even have retirement funds. It’s their land,” said Charles Meany, Weare’s code enforcement officer. “It’s something you really don’t want to screw with around here.”

He thinks the hotel idea is “ludicrous” and doubts whether Clements will be able to satisfy requirements to prove the economic necessity of building a hotel on Souter’s land.

But Clements has his share of local supporters, including David Archambault, who runs a go-cart track near Souter’s home.

“What this is doing I think is wonderful, because he’s getting a point across to all these people that they’re getting too much power,” Archambault said.

Robin Ilsley, who makes syrup on a family farm approximately 2 mi. from Souter’s place, thought the justice brought the controversy on himself. “It was a pretty stupid ruling,” she said.

Even her mother, who watched Souter grow up, is unsympathetic.

“I like David very much, but I don’t like his ideas,” said Winnie Ilsley, who runs a doll museum at her farm. “I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said of the New London decision.

And the hotel?

“Let ’em build — but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” she said.

Souter has defenders, like Betty Straw, his sixth-grade teacher.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said of the hotel.

“They’re just doing it for spite.”

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