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May 3rd, 2012 — By — In News & Events

NYC Pulls Plug on Willets Point Eminent Domain

On the eve of a hearing before the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, the City of New York has withdrawn its eminent domain suit and halted efforts to acquire private property in the “Iron Triangle” of Willets Point, Queens.  The condemnation actions were scheduled for a hearing Monday at which time the property owners’ attorney, Michael Rikon, planned to contend that the City’s proposed takings for the $3 billion Willets Point redevelopment plan were neither for a public purpose nor conducted appropriately under requirements set forth in NY State’s Eminent Domain Procedure Law (EDPL), the New York State Constitution or the U.S. Constitution.

[Disclosure: Michael Rikon is an eminent domain attorney in Manhattan and the New York Member of the Owners’ Counsel of America. ]

According to The New York Observer, “There were a lot of things going against the city here, and in view of all that, I think someone made the executive decision that this was going against the city and would set a bad precedent for all future takings,” Michael Rikon told The Observer.

Mr. Rikon, an attorney for Willets Point United, a landowner group fighting the city, said that the city faced a tough case because of issues ranging from a failure to have translators at the eminent domain hearing (many property owners are Latino) to not providing notice in person and having no clear public use yet assigned (there was not yet a developer in place at the time of the hearing). “It’s strange, too, because rarely do you win these kinds of cases,” Mr. Rikon said of eminent domain defendants, “but I really think this could have been different.”

While NYC has confirmed that it has withdrawn the eminent domain case, a City spokesperson has indicated that the project continues to move ahead.

“We’re very close to having a deal in place that will transform Willets Point into New York City’s next great neighborhood and continue the historic progress we’ve already made there,” said Julie Wood, spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Today’s action ensures that our plan will comply with the site’s myriad technical and legal requirements.”

The City’s proposed public use is questionable and has been at the center of the property owners’ challenge against the use of eminent domain.  The alleged purpose of the redevelopment for which private property need be condemned is to “transform a largely underutilized site with substandard conditions and substantial environmental degradation into a lively, mixed use sustainable community and regional destination.”  The property owners, however, have argued that this proposed use is “no more than pure speculation, with no developer chosen or even having agreed to undertake this significant and costly project.”

The withdrawal of the eminent domain suit does not preclude the City from attempting to use eminent domain in the future and may allow it to correct the mistakes and other procedural errors conducted over the last 3 years of this redevelopment project’s life.  As a matter of fact, The NY Times reports that the City “plans to submit a new set of findings, after the environmental review and the public review. Those, in turn, will almost certainly generate a new lawsuit opposing the project.”   The Times also noted that the City has now selected a developer for the first phase of the redevelopment plan, a joint venture of Related Companies and Sterling Equities, a real estate company owned by Fred Wilpon and Saul B. Katz, the owners of Citi Field and the Mets.

There is certainly more to come in this story. But for now, we send our congratulations to Mike Rikon, the members of Willets Point United and the private property owners, businesses and individuals who will continue on in the “Iron Triangle.”

For more commentary visit our blogging colleagues at inversecondemnation, New Jersey Condemnation and Gideon’s Trumpet.