Monday, December 07, 2009

Eminently Sensible

Steve Malanga waxes eloquently today in the NY Post about the need to change New York State's archaic eminent domain law: "A New York appellate court last week harshly rejected the state's effort to take property from businesses in upper Manhattan and give it to Columbia University for its campus expansion, calling it a "scheme" hatched by the university and the state and labeling their arguments in favor of invoking eminent domain, the government power to seize private property, as "mere sophistry." Yet for decades the state has confiscated private property on the slimmest of pretexts, often vastly underpaying, and in the process ruined businesses and lives. The Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based, public-interest group, recently called New York one of the worst eminent-domain abusers in the country."

And while the Post has provided Op-ed coverage for the big appellate court story on Columbia, it has yet to editorialize on the topic-but at least there has been some supportive commentary; the NY Times and the NY Daily News have been editorially silent (although the News did print our piece on Willets Point). This isn't an accident, since all of papers supported the Columbia the -and Willets Point-developments when they were debated by the city council.

But, as Malanga points out, going into the historical evolution of eminent domain in our state, the nature of the abuses rendered by the current state of NY's law demands a legislative response: "Only the state Legislature can fix this problem with a new law to rein in these abuses."

And it has been small businesses that have suffered greatly from these abuses: "In East Harlem alone, authorities took possession of and then razed 1,000 small businesses to make way for a dozen public-housing developments. In most cases, these businesses received little in the way of compensation; the majority simply disappeared. In 1957, New York Times reporters went in search of those displaced by government. They found Ramon Caro, who'd operated a restaurant in East Harlem until the government seized it and was now working as a dishwasher because the amount awarded to him wasn't enough to open a new restaurant."

And this is particularly true-as it is for so many of the Willets Point businesses-if the owners are renting but don't own the property: "Little has changed, especially in the case of businesses that don't own their own locations. For them, eminent domain is often a death knell because the state pays little in takings cases. To take one recent example, many of the estimated 55 businesses the city displaced to make way for the New York Times tower on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st streets either never reopened or relocated and have since succumbed."

The harsh reality of how eminent domain law effects so many is, of course, exacerbated by the unfair process that was revealed by the appellate court decision on Columbia. Gabe Pressman underscores this point: "The appeals court spoke out angrily, referring to how the "scheme was hatched," calling the effort “sophistry” and “idiocy.” The idea of stacking the deck should offend taxpayers, and make us thankful we have courts standing in the way of plundering landlords -- even if they say they’re acting in the cause of higher education."

And the use of eminent domain is going on all over the state while, as Malanga reminds us, the legislature remains stuck in the mud: "In New York, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed displacing businesses in a 62-acre tract in Queens known as Willets Point in order to make way for a proposed retail and subsidized housing project. In Patchogue, authorities used the threat of eminent domain to persuade business- and residential-property owners to sell land on which a private developer then built subsidized housing. In Schenectady, officials began the condemnation process this summer for a historic building that government wants to seize and tear down to replace with a retail project."

Changes are definitely needed-and Malanga advances a few ideas: "Reform would include:

* A stricter definition of "blight" land so that officials can't declare even a thriving neighborhood to be devastated just so they can seize property in it.

* A ban on government taking property from one private citizen to transfer to another private citizen for redevelopment merely to enhance the value of the land."

And we'll give him the last word: "We should all shudder at the notion that state or local officials could one day seize our property simply because they think someone else could make it more valuable."