It is, unfortunately, business as usual in the Empire State. A developer recently asked Auburn, N.Y., officials to condemn three small businesses, including one owned by a family who fled communist China, because he wanted to build a hotel where those businesses stand. The targeted properties were not blighted; the developer merely thought he knew better than the owners what should be done with their land. The city initially agreed to his request.
Even under Kelo, government has never been allowed to go this far—condemning property to hand it over to an identified developer without even the pretense of an overall plan in place. Buoyed by New York’s never-ending contempt for property rights, however, local governments routinely dispense with even the minimal protections left by Kelo to help their developer friends get exactly what they want.
Fortunately, this land grab has also been a demonstration of the growing power of IJ’s grassroots activism as hundreds of ordinary citizens have rallied to the property owners’ sides, drawing coverage from Fox News as well as local television, radio and newspaper outlets. IJ Staff Attorney Bob McNamara and I joined the owners on FoxNews.com, on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s Freedom Watch and on talk radio programs to increase the public’s awareness of this outrage. In response to the resulting backlash, the Auburn Industrial Development Agency voted unanimously against using eminent domain. In this case, the properties were saved.
In New York, nearly any property can be seized for the promise of something bigger and newer. Just ask Daniel Goldstein. In December, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that Daniel’s condo in Brooklyn could be seized so that developer Bruce Ratner and his Russian playboy business partner could build skyscrapers and an arena for the worst team in the NBA—the New Jersey Nets. The state’s high court decided that because Daniel’s condo was found “blighted” by a study paid for by Ratner (years after Ratner’s plan was announced), it could be condemned. After an heroic seven-year battle, Daniel must find a new home. Brooklyn is New York’s latest worst example of eminent domain abuse.
The property rights crisis in New York has only gotten worse with each passing year. New York courts have looked in vain to the legislature to fix this problem, while legislators have looked to the courts. Meanwhile, New Yorkers have been looking at condemnation notices. But, with IJ’s help, they are fighting back. The Institute for Justice is working closely with activists and legislators across the Empire State to stop these abuses.
The state Legislature is currently considering a bill to reform the state’s blight criteria, so that perfectly fine homes like Daniel Goldstein’s and thriving businesses like Damon Bae’s Fancy Cleaners in Harlem (which, incidentally, is surrounded by city-owned, vacant property) can no longer be declared blighted by whim. Although eminent domain reform will face a tough battle in the Legislature, we are committed to restoring property rights for New Yorkers and will press that fight on every front: in court, in the legislative arena and in the court of public opinion.
Meanwhile, the New York Court of Appeals has a chance to redeem itself in June when it will hear Tuck-It-Away v. New York State Urban Development Corporation. Columbia University—a private entity—wants to expand into Harlem and take everything in its path, including Nick Sprayregen’s Tuck-it-Away storage facility. Nick won a groundbreaking victory in the state appellate court that he, along with IJ and activists from around the state, is trying to preserve at the state’s highest court. IJ wrote an amicus brief in support of his case and we will rally by Nick’s side on the day of oral argument.
As activists in Auburn have demonstrated, citizens can fight city hall—and win. That’s the message the Institute for Justice will continue to carry to threatened home and business owners across New York and the nation until eminent domain for private gain is both politically and legally impossible.
Christina Walsh is the Institute’s director of activism and coalitions.