State Senator Bill Perkins will hold his first eminent domain hearing of the New Year today-the first of what the senator promises will be a series. And his focus will be on the recent Appellate Court ruling on the Columbia expansion project, and will examine what the court's findings of collusion between the university, the state, and the consultants hired to do the blight study, means for the need to amend law in this crucial property rights area.
As the Perkins hearing notice says: "The Appellate Division recently rejected the use of eminent domain to take private property for the expansion of Columbia University. The court found that the Empire State Development Corporation violated both state and federal due process clauses in an effort to prevent affected property owners from obtaining necessary information. ESDC‟s finding of blight was "bereft of facts" to establish true blight. The ESDC‟s determination that the project even has a public use, benefit or civic purpose was also called into question. Most troubling of all was the pattern of collusion between the state and Columbia, a private developer trying to utilize the state‟s power of eminent domain to take private property. This was clearly evidenced by the ESDC and Columbia each hiring the exact same consultant to conduct the blight study that served as the rationale for triggering condemnation proceedings."
And the hearing will ask: "What does the ruling tell us about the eminent domain process? How should the process be reformed? What are the benefits of a moratorium on eminent domain takings pending legislative action? What are the consequences for all stakeholders in this case, not just the litigants, but also the community, displaced tenants and property owners?"
All good questions,-and applicable to other cases such as the large scale displacement planned for Willets Point where the same consultants that stand accused in the Columbia case were instrumental in concocting an absurd environmental review that grossly minimizes the massive traffic impacts that that proposed development will generate for the Willets Point area. In our view, and we plan to tell this to the committee, there need to be an overhaul of the review process for any land use application that involves the use of eminent domain.
What this reform should address, is the way in which environmental consultants are ysed-and the fact that one in particular, AKRF, has exhibited a pattern of collusive behavior with both private developers and public entities. In the place of the continued favored nation role for AKRF and other such consultants, the state should mandate that there be a pool of independent consultants who are chosen by a panel-much like the city's IBO-with no ties to any public or private interest.
In addition, the state needs to tighten up its blight standards so that, as we have said, "might no longer makes blight." Which is precisely what occurred in the Columbia situation, as Julia Vitullo-Martin explains in the City Journal: "Columbia contends that its academic center will upgrade the neighborhood, create 6,900 jobs, and make immense contributions in biotechnology and health research. There is little reason to doubt any of these assertions. Columbia is one of the nation's leading research institutions and New York City's seventh-largest private employer. But should its importance entitle the university to take property owned by others?"
And Vitullo-Martin goes on to examine how the university went about getting its blight finding: "What happened, argues Mr. Sprayregen, was that Columbia had increased its ownership or control from a handful of properties in 2001 to 51% in 2007 and 91% of the area today. Along the way it let the properties decay by erecting ugly scaffolding, pushing out commercial tenants, and allowing trash to pile up. In all, Mr. Sprayregen put 10,000 pages of documents into the court record to show that West Harlem was not blighted before Columbia began its plans. "Is it fair to reward a private entity for its own bad conduct, its own role in producing neighborhood deterioration?" he asks."
Or a public entity like NYC for years of conscious neglect of Willets Point? But Perkins doesn't want to leave this momentous decisions exclusively in the hands of the courts: "State Sen. Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat and chairman of the committee on corporations, authorities and commissions, doesn't want to leave it to the courts. He held one public meeting on Judge Catterson's ruling before Christmas and is planning a second this coming week. He also fired off a letter to Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson asking him not to appeal Judge Catterson's ruling, and to impose a "statewide moratorium on the use of eminent domain" until the state legislature can pass legislation that specifies how the power can be used."
Clearly, with conflicting court rulings, something needs to be done to not only clarify the eminent domain statutes, but to make them more equitable as well. Currently, the law affords little or no protection to the rights of property owners-and that needs to change dramatically in the New Year.