Columbia expansion approval called a warning sign and call to action
January 14th, 2008
Several Council members are planning to begin an effort to get legislators in Albany to change the state’s eminent domain laws in the wake of the Council’s Dec. 19 decision to approve Columbia University’s expansion into Harlem.
“I think it’s a priority,” said Council Member Letitia James (D-Brooklyn), who voted against the Columbia expansion, and has been an ardent opponent of the use of eminent domain for the Atlantic Yards project, which sits in her district.
“We are opening up the door wider and wider to the abuse of eminent domain by private businesses, which is really nothing more than a transfer of private property from one who has less means to one who has more means,” she said.
Eminent domain, the process by which governments can seize property from private owners if a greater economic good can be justified, became a hot-button issue nationally in 2005.
The Supreme Court ruled then that eminent domain could be used for governments to seize property from one private owner and transfer it to another private owner, if the transfer can be shown to provide sufficient economic development.
The ramifications of the decision quickly reverberated throughout the country. James believes that the use of eminent domain and the threat of the use of eminent domain to encourage owners to sell is diverting the city from following the 197a process.
Among other changes James would like to see the Legislature consider are creating a clearer process for individuals whose properties are condemned to follow, a new way of estimating the value of a home and an extension of the time period during which owners can challenge seizures.
She would also like to see the Legislature change or eliminate “blight” as a term which can be applied to neighborhoods by people looking to use eminent domain. “What the State Legislature views as blight may be my home, which in my eyes is a mansion,” she said. As the chair of the Assembly’s corporations, authorities and commissions committee, Assembly Member Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) has spent time considering changes to the eminent domain laws.
Though he calls himself a “great believer” in eminent domain, he is concerned about the private-to-private transfers, and said there are several ways he thinks the law should be changed, including creating a system to give compensation above market value for property seized by a government to do private-to-private transfers.
Brodsky also believes blight should be removed as a term that can enable eminent domain use. “Blight means that you can use this power in poor neighborhoods but not in wealthy neighborhoods,” he said.
But Brodsky said the fate of any efforts to change the laws is uncertain, since restricting eminent domain is supported by several usually divergent groups, including some environmental advocates, community groups and libertarians, and other conservatives in government usually associated with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. “When you’ve got a coalition of eco-green activists and Scalia, the politics are not easily predicted,” Brodsky said. Nonetheless, James and several others are hoping Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) will put changing eminent domain laws at the top of the agenda when the Council appeals to state lawmakers.
In a statement, Quinn said she believes eminent domain “should be used carefully and cautiously and it should only be used when there is an overriding greater good in the interest of the city.” The statement did not include any comment about how or if she would press on the issue in Albany. Neither is Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Unaff.) planning to take up the issue. “Changing state eminent domain laws is not currently on our Albany agenda,” explained Bloomberg spokesman John Gallagher.
But Council Member Helen Sears (D-Queens) believes those on the Council who would like to see changes to eminent domain can press the issue themselves. Sears voted for the Columbia expansion. While she did not specify the changes she might want to see to eminent domain law, she called for the Council to have hearings on proposed changes with the goal of sending a resolution to Albany. “We can’t pass a law on eminent domain. But we can certainly open it up,” she said. She believes some of the Council’s non-binding resolutions have been effective in getting other government bodies to move, arguing that the Council’s resolutions on human trafficking and some of those in education prompted others to act. “Our resolutions are effective, depending on what the issue is,” she said. “The Council is a voice.”
Council Member Tony Avella (D-Queens), chair of the zoning and franchises subcommittee, voted against the Columbia plan, warning at the time that the Council’s support of the university’s application set a dangerous precedent.
“This is the first application that we have approved where the use of eminent domain can be used down the line,” he said, noting that this could have ramifications for the Atlantic Yards project as well as the proposed redevelopment of Willets Point. He wants to see additional controls put on eminent domain which would force a clearer enumeration of economic development benefits for private-to-private employers. He is unsure, however, how far his colleagues on the Council may actually be willing to push the issue. “A number of us have been talking about this,” Avella said, “but it would be interesting to see how many of the Council members who brought this up would be ready and willing to do something.”