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West Haven Retail Project Moves Forward, Property Rights Questions Remain

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Demolition for a major retail project is beginning five years after controversial home buyouts swept through part of West Haven.

“I thought it would be like an amazing thing to have this house where they had access to everything to rebuild their lives,” said Jocelyn Grant.

Back in 2017, Grant purchased a three-family home on First Avenue in West Haven with plans to make one unit her home, and the others a sober house for women.

“Where they had a bus route right there and this outlet center was going to be there, and they could have a shot to have jobs locally,” said Grant.

That outlet is the Haven Project, a large-scale retail space. Demolition is underway after five years of sitting idle. Grant’s former home is among 50 buildings to go.

“Remodeling everything was difficult, and then it was like, get everything out. And where was it going to go? What was I going to do?” said Grant.

She won’t discuss the sale, but public records show The Haven Group LLC bought it in March of 2018, eight months after she purchased it. The sale was for $63,000 above what she paid. It’s unclear if the profit fully covered those remodeling costs.

“Everybody in the end needs to be happy with whatever agreement it is,” said Grant.

Getting to that point took some time. NBC Connecticut was there as residents fought back against the city’s eminent domain filings, one even launching a lawsuit.

Former Mayor Ed O’Brien says the paperwork was a formality.

“We told the developers from the onset that we wanted them to work with each individual owner to come up with a private deal not using eminent domain,” said O’Brien. “Eminent domain is something I never supported.”

In the end, O’Brien says it was never used and all the residents took the buyouts. The planned mall is now underway with the Simon Group. They did not return NBC Connecticut’s requests for comment.

The current mayor says she’s focused on finding ways to bring revenue to the town which includes the Haven Project.

“So, we are doing our best to try and bring economic development because that’s our path to financial stability,” said Rossi.

Economic development is a goal for municipalities, but Republican state representative Tami Zawistowski says it shouldn’t be at the expense of property owners.

“The government has a right to take people’s property if it’s for a public use, which would be something like a highway or utilities,” said Zawistowski, who represents East Granby. “But it really shouldn’t have the right to take somebody’s house for like a shopping center or apartments or something.”

She points to Kelo vs. New London, the eminent domain fight over a home that went all the way to the supreme court. New London won the case in 2005. The development plans were eventually scrapped. 

“Having to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court took a tremendous amount of time energy and money, and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said Zawistowski.

She says she’s planning to once again introduce a bill to tighten eminent domain laws. Her similar bill made progress last year before it died when the legislative session ended due to COVID.

“It’s not a partisan issue at all. It’s a property rights issue and it’s the right thing to do,” said Zawistowski.

This year the developers are expected to go before her and the rest of the legislature for approval to move forward with the next phase.

West Haven is also looking to the future.

“There’s supposed to be four or five restaurants that are going to go in there, there’s going to be a recreation area, it’s a beautiful, beautiful development so it will be a showcase piece for the City of West Haven.”

For Grant, she’s still searching for a new home, and volunteering with a sober house already running.

“To be able to help people in recovery helps my own recovery.”

But she’s unsure about opening another in the future, scarred by the past. 

“I don’t think that will ever happen again, but it was a lot, it was a lot.”

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