SOMEONE BEATS CITY HALL: NYC loses eminent domain court case

New York City can’t take everyone’s property to help well-connected private interests? After last week’s Atlantic Yards decision, wasn’t another eminent domain victory a sure thing?

From Friday’s New York Times:

Court Bars New York’s Takeover of Land for Columbia Campus
Published: December 3, 2009
A New York appeals court ruled Thursday that the state could not use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University to obtain parts of a 17-acre site in Upper Manhattan, setting back plans for a satellite campus at a time of discord over government power to acquire property.

In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.

The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the “scheme was hatched,” using terms like “sophistry” and “idiocy” in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.
Columbia embarked in 2003 on its first major expansion in 75 years, saying it had outgrown its Morningside Heights campus. It planned to replace the low-scale industrial buildings north of 125th Street, in the Manhattanville area, with school buildings, laboratories, restaurants and tree-lined streets.

Norman Siegel (former head of the NY ACLU) successfully argued the case. I’m almost never on his side, but here he defended the little guy’s property rights and he won.

Columbia University is a private interest. There is no state interest here for using the state’s power of eminent domain to take someone’s property who doesn’t want to sell it.

What determines “blight”? If the state wants your property, it’s pretty much anything:

“Even a cursory examination of the study reveals the idiocy of considering things like unpainted block walls or loose awning supports as evidence of a blighted neighborhood,” Justice Catterson wrote.

From The Village Voice blog:

The area had never been considered blighted before Columbia came to own it, the judge wrote. He called the blight designation “mere sophistry.” “It was utilized by ESDC [The Empire State Development Corporation] years after the scheme was hatched to justify the employment of eminent domain. But this project has always primarily concerned a massive capital project for Columbia. Indeed, it is nothing more than economic development wearing a different face.”

From the court decision, care of the Wall Street Journal’s law blog:

In this case, the record overwhelmingly establishes that the true beneficiary of the scheme to redevelop Manhattanville is not the community that is supposedly blighted, but rather Columbia University, a private elite education institution. These remarkably astonishing conflicts with Kelo on virtually every level cannot be ignored, and render the taking in this case unconstitutional.

Back at the New York Times City Room blog, someone (Comment #10) asks the obvious question:

How is it emminent domain could be used for a basketball stadium in Brooklyn but not for a university. Sounds crazy!

Quick answer: The Brooklyn plan involves “affordable housing” and ACORN, so it’s for a public good. Also, the public good of a professional basketball team far outweighs a university research facility curing cancer.

Another answer: No, the two decisions don’t make any sense and seem contradictory.

Mystery question: Where are the local politicians? Again, I ran unsuccessfully for Manhattan borough president in 2005, and I never would have allowed private property rights to be violated. Where was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, standing for the little guy and the Constitution? Where was Manhattan Borough President (and 2013 mayoral candidate) Scott Stringer? Where was the city council?

To their credit, many community board members did stand up for the private property owner in this case.

It’s always pleasing when, even in New York City, a person fights against all the odds and wins…the right to keep his own property.

This might reach the U.S. Supreme Court. What would a wise Latina do?