Thursday, June 03, 2010

Fox in Eminent Domain Chicken Coop

Today on Fox News, the an eminent domain feature on the plight of the Willets Point property owners is running. The title of the segment-an ongoing series-is, "It's Your Land." The reporter on the story is Eric Shawn, and he blogs on the Willets Point plight-using sawdust entrepreneur Jake Bono as his symbol:

"This is not to disrespect the flag or America," says Jake Bono, "this is a symbol of when your property or life is in distress. Americans are supposed to turn the flag upside down in this way." Bono sits in the office of the building built by his grandfather, the feisty and pugnacious 34 year old wearing a blue tee-shirt emblazoned with an upside-down American flag and the words: "Distressed Americans." Another small upside down flag is hanging on the wall, and for Jake and his family business, Bono Sawdust Supply, you can't help see his frustration, disappointment, and shaken faith in our system that he holds so dear. He fears that he and his family's legacy will fall victim to eminent domain. "This is not what the founding fathers, this is not what is supposed to happen here in America," he says. "This is mind-boggling to us."

But, as in all of these cases, there is always someone representing the side of progress-a march to the future that includes trampling on the rights of the little folks who stand in the way of the new order: "Willets Point needs to be cleaned up," says the Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. "It's not a place where anybody should be working." Marshall, who has worked on the issue for years, points out that for decades Willets Point had been an old ash dump, and now needs to be razed and reconstructed. Some of the roads are bumpy and barely passable. There are no sewers, so flooding is common. "There will be a lot of nice stores, people can shop," she predicts. "Queens should not be the dumping ground for the world."

"It's not a place where anyone should be working?" What a curious position for the borough leader to be taking when there are over two hundred businesses and two thousand workers in the path of the city's wrecking ball. And, of course, Helen Marshall, who labors so smoothly under the benevolent tutelage of  Master Mike Bloomberg, has been in the public sector for years and has never lifted a finger to improve these miserable working conditions-conditions caused by the city's malign neglect of the area.

But there are a number of salient facts about Willets Point that Marshal doesn't address. The project that the city envisioned will develop 9 million square feet-and within the complex will be a 1.2 million sq. ft. auto dependent shopping mall. But there's one big problem with all of this. The city doesn't have the road capacity to get the projected 80,000 car and truck trips a day in and out of the 61 acre site. It  has proposed building ramps on and off of the Van Wyck Expressway-but, as our own traffic consultant for Willets Point United has indicated-the ramps don't work.

That is why NY State DOT and the Federal Highway Administration has yet to sign off on the needed permission-and why hearings in the legislature on the issue are forthcoming this month. It seems that the consultants used by the city's economic development agency have managed to trip all, over themselves-with two different and contradictory traffic reports. Without the ramps, however, even the city admits that the project can't be built.

But there's an additional giant fly in the city's ointment. As Fox has reported-and as we have commented on-the NY State Court of Appeals has heard oral arguments on the eminent domain challenge to Columbia University's expansion. That challenge also involves less than honest consulting work. If the state's highest court upholds the Appellate decision knocking out the use of eminent domain for Columbia, it will make the Willets Point development extremely problematic.

But in both of these eminent domain challenges, a good part of the effort is to change the state's harmful legal restrictions on property rights. As we told Fox: "Others fault the state's eminent domain laws and think they should be changed to more appropriately favor property owners. "What we'd love to see, aside from not getting evicted at Willets Point, is for the state to change the law," says Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist and media consultant who advises the holdout property owners who have formed the group, Willets Point United. He says the state should "create a definition for what blight is, and what public use is, and offer some protections which don't exist under New York State law today."

What we don't need are Helen Marshall's grief counselors: "Ms. Marshall says the property owners are being treated fairly, and some have been offered substantial amounts of money for their properties. “The city has been very, very fair with them,” she says of the property owners, saying they are given relocation opportunities, and that “the city is still looking for places to make sure that everybody is taken care of.” But she understands some who are resisting. "You don't expect one hundred percent of the people to say, 'Oh, we'll pack up and go. That is not going to be the reality. I think you have to have people working with them from government who can understand the plight of those people," she notes, but insists that "the people who are left will have to leave eventually."

Fairness, we guess-like blight-is really in the eye of the beholder-and Marshall's jaundiced view of what's fair needs to be seen in the context of basic constitutional rights. We'll give Jake Boono the last word: "While officials praise the planned development, others like Bono remain with a shadow over their future. He knows, under the law, that the government can pay him what is considered a 'fair market value" for his property, whether he likes it or not. "They're not going to win," he vows. "They're going to try hard, but they are not going to win...We have to fight for our lives to keep what is ours."


Here's the video link.