Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Columbia's Tarnished Gem

In a remarkable tour de force, The Weekly Standard has chronicled the eminent domain duplicity exhibited by Columbia University in its effort to develop West Harlem for its own benefit. Our client Nick Sprayregen has been fighting the academic behemoth, and has watched as the university has actively blighted the targeted neighborhood: "Manhattanville was never trendy, but it was once an active neighborhood full of light industry--auto shops, warehouses, and the like. But as Columbia began buying up the neighborhood, businesses left. Eighteen buildings in Manhattanville are now at least 50 percent vacant; Columbia owns 17 of them and they were nearly all fully occupied before Columbia acquired them. As a study put together by Sprayregen's lawyer explains, "Each became vacant only after, or immediately prior to Columbia's acquisition or assumption of control." And the university's actions seem designed to keep them vacant."

On the contrary, Sprayregen's properties are in pristine condition; and the state and Columbia want to extort them from him: " But Columbia wants his land. So the university has been working with the state of New York to have the neighborhood declared "blighted." If that designation is made, the government will be able to take Sprayregen's well-kept property and hand it over to the university, which owns the run-down buildings. And only then, when they have their neighbor's land, does Columbia promise to clean up its act and make Manhattanville nice again. It's a curious situation--the government punishing a landowner who takes care of his property and rewarding an owner who does not. But this is the through-the-looking-glass world of New York eminent domain law."

The Weekly Standard goes on to document the extent to which the university, NYC and NYS are in collusion, particularly about the essential blight study findings-raising real questions about the fairness of the state's eminent domain procedures: "So to recap: The state of New York hired a firm that works for Columbia to carry out the blight study. The firm used personnel who were working for Columbia on the project, and Columbia reviewed this work as it progressed. You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that AKRF's report declared the Manhattanville neighborhood was blighted--the precise result Columbia desired."

But, as the WS underscores, the NYS eminent domain law is almost impregnable to any legal challenge: "But New York makes challenging eminent domain even more difficult. State law does not allow property owners to challenge eminent domain claims in a trial court. In every other state in the Union, owners have the right to challenge the government's assertion of eminent domain before a trial judge--meaning that they get the chance for discovery, to call witnesses on their behalf, to introduce evidence, and to challenge the government's assertions. New York routes challenges to eminent domain takings directly to an appellate court, where property owners are given 10 minutes to argue their case before a judge and cannot embark on any findings of fact--let alone challenge the facts asserted by the government. As Robert McNamara, a staff attorney for the Institute of Justice, wryly notes, "New York doesn't just stack the deck against property owners. They don't even let the property owners play."

And the state, to its shame, hasn't lifted a finger post Kelo to change this charade of a statute: "Once you get before the appellate court for your 10 minutes of due process, the only facts the judge will rely on are the ones the government and the developer have laid out for themselves. As you might imagine, when it comes to eminent domain takings, the Empire State bats just about 1.000. The lawmakers in New York seem to like this system. After the Supreme Court's Kelo decision in 2005, states rushed to reform their eminent domain laws; some even amended their state constitutions to protect property owners. All told, 43 states undertook some type of reform designed to combat eminent domain abuse. The only stab at reform undertaken in New York was the legislature's attempt to form a commission to study the issue--and even that failed."

In its attempt to constrict any real public review of the phony blight study, Columbia/ESDC resorts to its "we're here to heal the world," defense: "In its brief arguing against the temporary restraining order, the ESDC's lawyers claimed that a delay in closing the Public Record might cost human lives: 'By 2011, this country will have a virtual tsunami of Alzheimer's patients as baby boomers age. .  .  . Here, the first building to be constructed, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, would be devoted to curing diseases, such as autism, dementia, Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. The money is already available for the construction of that Center. How does one place a price tag in human suffering on delaying a possible cure of any such diseases by 18 months, 12 months, or 6 months?'"

The only thing sickening here is the hubris on display by all of the colluders: "In the annals of eminent domain litigation, it's hard to find a more brazen contention. But it's all too typical of the endless legal maneuvering that Sprayregen has been forced to endure as he attempts to build a body of evidence to actually contest the forthcoming seizure of his property."

So, unless Sprayregen can resurrect his land swap plan, he'll be facing an uphill battle that, hopefully, would end up in the Supreme Court-and, with luck, change the face on eminent domain law in New York State. In all of this, the only thing we can conclude is that, if the university is successful, the money that the Indians got for Manhattan Island will seem like a bargain.