Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Columbia's Tarnished Gem?

Kudos to the NY Post. The paper affords some editorial space for Nick Sprayregen to discuss the upcoming Court of Appeals hearing that will be held in Albany a week from today. And Nick uses the opportunity to highlight one important aspect of the Appellate Court’s decision that the Appeals Court will be reviewing: “A lot rides on how the court decides the case. In a little noticed section of the decision, Judge James Catterson ruled against the state's use of eminent domain on the grounds that Columbia's expansion is not a "civic project." The judge agreed with us that a private university doesn't constitute facilities for a "civic project."

This issue gets to the heart of the distinction between, “public use,” and “public benefit,” and underscores how courts have been undermining property rights through the evolution away from strict a strict public use standard. As Sprayregen points out: “A designation that a development is a "civic project" allows the state to "take" people's homes and businesses and add their land to certain specific types of projects. In the past, the courts have routinely held that "civic projects" should include significant public use of the facilities. Examples include a public park, a convention center, even a professional sports arena -- and, of course, a public school.”

But Columbia is a private college, and as we have been pointing out on numerous occasions, the university has consistently refused to negotiate with Sprayregen for an affordable housing swap that would have actually given the development project a smidgen of public benefit. In addition, Columbia, unlike her Ivy League sister schools, devised its development plan with little or no input from any community stakeholders-Columbia ubber alles has been the central theme (as the collapse of the CBA for this project affirms)

A theme that Sprayregen-and the Appellate Court has captured: “As the judge noted, "Columbia is virtually the sole beneficiary of the project. This alone is reason to invalidate the condemnation especially where, as here, the public benefit is incrementally incidental to the private benefits of the project." In short, as a matter of New York law, there is simply no precedent for designating a private university's project a "civic project."

So, all eyes in the world of NY eminent domain law will be on Albany next week-and a court ruling that upholds the lower court would be a shot heard out in Willets Point; and the city’s cavalier approach to property confiscation may soon be hearing Taps on the WPU bugle. On the other hand, if the Court of Appeals knocks down the Appellate decision, it could well mean open season on property in New York.

We’ll give Sprayregen the last warning word on this possibility: “If the Court of Appeals overturns this ruling, it could very well open the floodgates, for the first time ever, of excessive and aggressive expansions by any wealthy, well-connected private school. You could find yourself losing your home or business, wholly against your will, merely because the private school next door wants to build a larger gym or a new cafeteria. This is wrong."