Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Domain of the NY Times

The NY Times editorial page is nothing if not consistent-consistent that is in its disdain for the tax payers and small businesses of New York State. Why else would it be so dismissive of an appellate court ruling on eminent domain in the case of the Columbia University expansion? As the paper argues: "A New York State appellate court has misguidedly put a roadblock in the way of Columbia University’s expansion plans, ruling that the state misused eminent domain to help Columbia assemble the land it needs. This decision conflicts with the relevant law and will make it much harder for the university to move ahead with a project that would benefit the surrounding neighborhood and the entire city."

But dismissive is one thing, misstating the facts is something else. As the paper's own Charles Bagli points out on the City Room blog: "The court’s decision is not fatal to to its expansion plan. It already owns or controls 91 percent of the 17-acres–61 of 67 buildings–in the project area. It can simply build around the other property owners, or come to some sort of agreement. But the state and the university had always sought the entire site."

But the university wants an all or nothing symmetry it appears; and that it could avoid taking the Nick Sprayregan property-something that the city of New London could have done in the Kelo/Pfizer case-is neatly elided by the Times. And its notion of what constitutes a civic purpose is so expansive that it could subsume almost anything.

As the paper says: "The civic purpose in the Columbia expansion is clear, given the contributions it would make to education, the job market and community life. The Empire State Development Corporation also made a thoroughly defensible decision that eminent domain was appropriate given the blighted condition of the land at issue, between 125th and 133rd Streets near the Hudson River."

But the court, and in our view got it right, saw it otherwise-and paid particular attention to the collusion between the university, its consultants and the state. As the Observer had pointed out about the court's ruling "It also was highly critical of the process of determining blight, a major component of the use of eminent domain. The state had hired the consulting firm AKRF to do both the environmental review for the project and the determination of blight. Ultimately, the ESDC brought in a second contractor to replicate the original blight study, but, as the court pointed out, this was well after the decision had been made to use eminent domain."

And what of the public nature of the plan? The court saw through the ruse: "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."

Now one could disagree with the court on this, but it's far from being a weakly reasoned decision-and the fact that the Times has little or nothing to say about constitutionally protected property rights is sadly predicable. In fact, if it could rewrite the constitution, the paper would no doubt substitute, or elevate, the fictitious right to privacy over that of basic property protection.

And as far as what the Court of Appeals will decide, the Times believes: "But it is regrettable that much of the project is now stalled. The Court of Appeals should hear the case on an expedited schedule and reverse the Appellate Division’s ruling." Yet yesterday that very court ruled against ESDC and in favor of Sprayregen on the very freedom of information issue that ultimately led to the appellate court's ruling in Nick's favor. So if you're the Times, you might want to be careful what you wish for.

The Observer picks up the story: "On Dec. 3, the owner of a set of warehouses in the footprint of Columbia University's planned West Harlem expansion, with his lawyer, Norman Siegel, were handed a highly unexpected victory in a suit that challenged the use of eminent domain for the project. And now the state's top court has ruled in his favor on a different matter: open records."

A sign for the Times? "Coming a few months before he will presumably argue the state's appeal in the eminent domain case, Mr. Sprayregen said the decision is encouraging given that the court unanimously acknowledged a flaw in the process, which was one of the reasons cited in the recent eminent domain ruling. "Not only has the court already become familiar with the whole controversy, but they've already ruled that the conduct of this state has been improper and they violated our due process rights," he said."

This could be leading up to a blockbuster decision-one that will reverberate throughout New York State. For an interesting first hand account of the Sprayregen saga, check out this Fox and Friends video of Nick describing his five year odyssey. Sprayregen, like Susette Kelo and the business owners of WPU, is a true American hero against the ever expanding government impingement on personal liberty.