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June 24th, 2010 — By — In News & Events

New York Court of Appeals reverses Columbia University eminent domain case

We have just learned that the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) has released its opinion in the matter of Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corp., No. 125 (June 24, 2010). This is the case in which the New York State Urban Development Corporation (also known as the Empire State Development Corporation or ESDC) sought to condemn by eminent domain private properties in the West Harlem neighborhood surrounding Columbia University and give those seized properties to that private institution for an expansion project it wishes to undertake. The ESDC had designated the targeted neighborhood as “blighted” and used that designation as its rational basis for using the power of eminent domain to condemn private property.

As oral arguments occurred less than a month ago, the Court has delivered this opinion rather swiftly. Although we have not yet had time to fully review the decision, the Court’s ruling in favor of the ESDC in the Atlantic Yards caseGoldstein v. New York State Urban Dev. Corp., only months prior has had a significant impact on today’s decision.

In this appeal, we are called upon to determine whether respondent’s exercise of its power of eminent domain to acquire petitioners’ property for the development of a new Columbia University campus was supported by a sufficient public use, benefit or purpose (see New York Const art I, § 7 [a]; Eminent Domain Procedure Law 207 [C] [4]). We answer this question in the affirmative and conclude, pursuant to our recent holding in Matter of Goldstein v New York State Urban Dev. Corp. (13 NY3d 511 [2009]), that the Empire State Development Corporation’s (“ESDC”) findings of blight and determination that the condemnation of petitioners’ property qualified as a ‘land use improvement project’ were rationally based and entitled to deference.”
(Slip op. at 2)

As in the Atlantic Yards case (Goldstein), opponents of the Columbia project argued that blight did not exist and the blight study conducted by ESDC’s subcontractor was faulty and in bad faith. Additionally, in the instant case, the property owners argued that contrary to Atlantic Yards, the Columbia project was entirely for private gain as Columbia is a private institution rather than for a public purpose, as required by New York’s constitution. Further, the property owners in Kaur had argued that they were denied procedural due process and that the ESDC acted in bad faith and with pretext. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals did not see it that way. “Because ESDC did not withhold any documents that formed part of the administrative record and because petitioners are not entitled to discovery under article two of the EDPL, we, too, reject this argument as lacking merit.” (Slip op. at 27)

Fellow blogger and eminent domain attorney, Robert Thomas, ponders the following question in his post today: “You’ve got to wonder whether there are any limits on eminent domain in New York. Today, it looks like there are not.” Clearly, New York State legislators and government leaders should consider that question carefully. It is obvious that the administrative process created by New York’s Eminent Domain Procedure Law is flawed and that property owners are not afforded due process under the current system. (See our previous post here in which NYC-based eminent domain attorney Mike Rikon calls for a commission to study the current procedure in NY.) Further, the term blight has become an overused adjective in New York rather than a carefully studied and fairly applied designation.

It is anticipated that there will be much discussion and analysis about today’s decision and we look forward to seeing others’ perspectives and thoughts on this particular case and New York’s eminent domain procedure in general. Once we have completed our own review of the opinion, we will post additional thoughts here as well.

[Disclosure: Robert Thomas and Michael Rikon are Owners’ Counsel of America members representing property owners in the states of Hawaii and New York, respectively.]