When Sam Fish got home on a brisk day in October, he was greeted by a letter pinned to the front door of his Cortland County home in upstate New York. It was from the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and concerned the expansion of Route 281, a road that passes by Sam’s home.
The letter explained that because the road needed to be expanded, Sam would have to sell his home and land to the state government for “just compensation” as it was being taken through eminent domain. Sam had to read the letter twice. Not because he didn’t understand what was happening, but because he didn’t understand how it could be happening again.
At the time, Sam was already involved in an eminent domain dispute with the county, not the state, over a nearby airport. Cortland County had purchased a private airport and later passed legislation to allow for larger planes which called for “obstruction removal processes” according to FAA guidelines.
As a result, 12 people lost parts of their land, with four families bulldozed out of their homes. Sam lost the ability to barbeque in his own yard, own a satellite dish, and use certain outdoor lighting. The county also massacred the foliage on his property, grading down trees hundreds of yards away to allow for “visibility.”
As it is currently drawn, the Route 281 plan would cut through Sam’s home. But it doesn’t have to. If the project were moved north about 10 feet, into a grassy space on the other side of the street, NYSDOT would not need to seize Sam’s property, allowing his home, built by his grandfather and marital home of his parents, to remain.
When Sam’s attorney, Lee Miller, also a victim of eminent domain, contacted the NYSDOT concerning this home-saving alternative, the state told her that they could not change the engineering drawings so close to the actual project…which isn’t set to occur until the fall. Sam even offered to have his house moved to a different location on his property. He received estimates from home moving companies and proposed that instead of providing just compensation for his home and bulldozing it, NYSDOT instead pay to move his home. Again, NYSDOT said no.
On March 24th, Sam attended a meeting led by state officials regarding the plans for expanding Route 281. Upon arrival, Sam found another “note pinned to his door”—they were coming after his property for a third time. The state officials announced that Route 222 would also see an expansion plan that called for the taking of 25 to 30 feet of Sam’s remaining farm along the route. Sam had not received any prior notice about this expansion plan, and again, had not been approached during the planning phase.
Road expansions are typically considered constitutional “public uses.” But the manner in which the NYSDOT has gone about their planning and execution of expanding Routes 281 and 222 displays an obvious need to provide greater protections for property owners.
In the Castle Coalition’s 50 State Report Card, New York ranks as one of the leading eminent domain abusers in the country. Going after a United States veteran’s property from two different directions—making that three times he’s faced eminent domain—is exceptionally abusive, even for a state like New York. Hopefully, the NYSDOT will learn to respect the people who have fought to defend our rights and freedoms, and work with men like Sam Fish, not against them.
— Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice