Monday, February 08, 2010

Property Value Changes

Gotham Gazette has an interesting story on the prospects of getting NY State's eminent domain laws changed-and the piece is highlighted with a nice picture of Nick Sprayregen's Harlem storage property. Still, the chances of legislative changes to the current antiquated and inequitable statute is rather daunting.

As GG points out: "Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has put together a package of legislation that would create a commission to review the state's eminent domain process, give land owners fair compensation for their property and establish an ombudsman who would help land owners whose property is targeted by eminent domain. Later this week Sen. Bill Perkins will unveil legislation that he says would change the state's eminent domain laws to better protect property owners. The situation in the legislature, along with a recent appellate court ruling that found the process the state used to take land for a Columbia University satellite campus in upper Manhattan was unconstitutional, could result in the first major changes to New York's eminent domain laws in more than 30 years."

But there are powerful forces at work to thwart any real change: "But developers, real estate interests and some politicians fear changes could make it more difficult for the state to improve blighted neighborhoods in desperate need of investment, infrastructure and jobs. "Eminent domain is an essential governmental tool that allows for the implementation of important development projects to the benefit of the public at large," Lisa Willner, public affairs manager for Empire State Development Corp., which oversees the state's eminent domain process, said in a statement."

Perhaps the most significant area that needs to be changed is the way in which blight is defined-or isn't: "State law defines blight as "substandard and insanitary." Land that is determined to be blighted can be given by the state to another private owner for the purpose of economic development. The state can also use blight determination to make way for public works projects such as roads. According to attorney Michael Rikon, who represents property owners in the Willet's Point section of Queens, where the city is planning a major redevelopment, the term is so vague that the contractors used by the government basically make up formulas as they go along. "The definition of blight is so broad it could come down to cracks in the sidewalk. Even the mayor's townhouse could be blighted, because it only supports one family," he said."

Should Bloomberg be worried? Not really-the state has never taken property from the truly wealthy, and Norman Siegal nails this entire discussion: "Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who represents Tuck-It-Away, a storage company that is fighting Columbia University's expansion plans, agrees. "Basically they are saying if there is a Motel 8 and Hilton comes along and says they can make the property more valuable, then it [the Motel 8] can be declared blighted." Many advocates, Siegel said, have begun saying the land in these cases should not be labeled "blighted," but "coveted."

And to make the blighters even more arbitrary, we get the collusion of the consultants: "Of further concern to Rikon, Siegel and others is who makes the call. While the board of the Empire State Development Corp. technically determines whether a property is blighted, the agency hires a contractor who is paid millions of dollars to conduct the technical study and write a report. In the case of Columbia's campus expansion, the university and the development corporation used the same contractor, AKRF, at the same time."

AKRF, never before known for standup comedy, defends its work in this manner: "As a firm of planners and analysts, AKRF's responsibility is the collection and assessment of data in an objective and thorough manner," a spokesman for the firm said. '"Any suggestion that the firm -- widely recognized as a trusted industry leader -- would compromise the quality of its work is incorrect."

Which brings us to the situation with the environmental work that the firm has done for EDC at Willets Point. As consultants on the original EIS, as well as the study done for the crucial ramp construction approval, we marvel at how, "a trusted industry leader," could be part of two different and wildly contradictory reports-for basically analyzing the same traffic in the WP area. And, as an aside, wasn't Enron also an industry leader?

But what's truly egregious in the eminent domain statute is the absence of any real equal protection and due process for the landowners-and Brodsky and Perkins are looking to change this: "According to Siegel, property owners only get one, very narrow chance to argue that their property should not be taken away from them. He said landowners in other states have more of an opportunity to challenge decisions. "As far as I can tell New York is the only state where you start at the appeals level," Siegel said. "You get 15 minutes to argue. There is no cross-examination. I think it is a violation of due process."

And five years after the silly-and wrongheaded-Kelo decision, NY lags behind so many other states that saw the need to change: "Most states changed the process and the standards for applying eminent domain following a Supreme Court ruling in 2005. In Kelo v. City of New London [Connecticut], the court decided that a state can take property from a private owner and transfer it to another owner for the sake of economic development. Forty-three states then changed their laws to protect property owners. New York did not."

Still, we are encouraged by the growing coalition of forces interested in altering the retrograde status quo on this issue-and we look forward to playing a role in helping advance the changes that are surely needed. With Pfizer fleeing New London and leaving the city with a vacant money pit, we need to wise up quick before even more people lose their property with the ripped off NY tax payers getting stuck with the bill.