Finally Some Limits On New York Eminent Domain Confiscations

December 8, 2009

As I have noted recently, New York courts seem to rubber stamp any eminent domain claims made by municipalities in this post Kelo world. The Atlantic Yards decision by the Court of Appeals was an attack on private property owners in the state, at least if that private property owner was too small to buy itself a nice public authority sponsor like the Empire State Development Corp.

That’s why I was heartened to read last week’s decision by the Appellate Division, First Department in the case of Kaur, et al. v. New York State Urban Development Corporation. Judge Catterson, who wrote the majority opinion, shredded arguments made by Columbia University and the ESDC.  In fact, he went so far as to say that ” The process employed by ESDC predetermined the unconstitutional outcome.”

The court also ruled that there was no evidence of any economic blight in Manhattanville prior to the proceedings being commenced.   Catterson noted that Manhattanville was not in a depressed economic condition when Columbia and the Empire State Development Corporation began its quest to take the land. This taking was also not part of any comprehensive development plan.   The Court wasn’t very impressed with the ESDC study submitted to prove blight either:

“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 29 neighborhood. Virtually every neighborhood in the five boroughs will yield similar instances of disrepair that can be captured in close-up technicolor. ”

The game isn’t over until the Court of Appeals sings, and from the way it dealt with the Atlantic Yards case, I’m not optimistic.  I just have a feeling that the State’s highest court will find a way to rule in favor of the big bucks private entity, whether it is Columbia University or Bruce Ratner.  It will be interesting to see how it manages to get around the “blight” issue.  The Court of Appeals also seems ready to allow the Empire State Development Corporation to do as it pleases without oversight. This is incomprehensible to me for the reasons noted by Judge Catterson, as well as its problems in the past.  Check out this editorial that appeared in the Daily News yesterday.

Although Judge Catterson seemed surprised at the shady behavior exhibited by the ESDC, maybe he shouldn’t have been.  Check out this post that appeared in the Daily Gotham in 2006.

Whether or not the higher court reverses the good work done in the First Department, the editorial sees some good coming from this case:

“The decision was nonetheless welcome for putting public authorities on notice that they must meet minimal standards before trying to seize private property.”

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