Eminent Domain: From Property Owner to Private Developer
The New York Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the state could seize private property in the interests of Columbia University, which plans to build a satellite campus in Harlem. Agreeing with the Empire State Development Corporation’s findings that the area’s condemnation both served a public purpose and that the area in question was “blighted,” the court has now allowed the state to utilize its power of eminent domain.
Citing deference to the state’s determination, and following the precedent created in the Atlantic Yards case of last year, yesterday’s decision overturned an appellate court ruling from 2009 that found that the designation of “blight” was “mere sophistry,” and that the use of eminent domain would merely benefit a private entity. This decision points to a number of troubling trends that have emerged in eminent domain law.
Case after case, courts have simply deferred to the judgments of government agencies, granting the ESDC free rein to determine what is blighted, and then acquiescing to those determinations. As the appellate court pointed out in 2009, both the ESDC and Columbia University used the same contractor to conduct the study of the area that led to its blighted designation, a designation that Justice James Catterson threw out the window. Furthermore, the courts have steadily expanded the definition of “public use,” allowing private developers to simply argue that their project has a purportedly superior utility than its current use. In questioning, even the ESDC’s own attorney admitted that Columbia’s justification for the use of eminent domain could also be applied in the future to the expansion of such elite entities as private schools.
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London (2005), a ruling that pronounced that states could seize private property and transfer it to a different private owner in the name of economic development, forty-three states modified their eminent domain laws. New York, however, was not one of them. Yesterday’s decision shows, yet again, that it is about time that New York followed suit.