Own Property in New York State?You’d Better Pay Attention to Tuesday’s High Court Argument on Eminent Domain Abuse

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 28, 2010

Arlington, Va.—If you own a piece of property in New York, you’d better pay close attention to an oral argument taking place on Tuesday, June 1 at 2 p.m. in Albany before New York’s high court.

This case—Kaur v. Empire State Development Corporation—may well decide if powerful private interests can team up with the government to take away your home, your small business, your farm or your factory through eminent domain for someone else’s private gain.

It is called eminent domain abuse and it is a plague that has wreaked havoc across the Empire State for decades.  Tuesday’s court argument will decide whether Columbia University—a private institution—may direct the government’s power of eminent domain to take property away from its neighbors for the university’s private use and profit.  Columbia seeks to take the property of neighbors Nick Sprayregen and Amanjit Kaur to expand its campus.  If Columbia were a public university, this would be a public use.  But Columbia is a private university and, as such, the takings are for private gain.

Immediately following the 2 p.m. oral argument, which is expected to last for about one hour, property owners, their advocates and supporters will hold a press conference outside of the court to answer questions and explain why property rights must be respected in the state.  The press conference will take place at Academy Park, 20 Eagle Street in Albany, directly across the street from the front of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice (IJ), said, “This is the kind of abuse of government power on behalf of powerful private interests the Framers of the Constitution sought to prevent when they drafted the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and required that private property could only be taken for a public use.  Taking someone’s land for a private institution like Columbia for its private use and profit is not a public use.”  The Institute for Justice, which represented the homeowners in the infamous eminent domain abuse case Kelo v. City of New London, is the nation’s leading advocate against eminent domain for private gain.

In December 2009, a New York appellate court sided with the property owners, ruling there to be “no credible proof of blight in Manhattanville”—the neighborhood Columbia seeks to take.  The court found that “the process employed by ESDC [the Empire State Development Corporation] predetermined the unconstitutional outcome, was bereft of facts which established that the neighborhood in question was blighted, and ultimately precluded the petitioners from presenting a full record before either the ESDC or, ultimately, this Court.  In short, it is a skein worth unraveling.”  The court also found that eminent domain should only be used for public use—not a private, elite organization’s expansion.  The ESDC—unhappy with this sharp rebuke—appealed to the state’s highest court.

Just last year, the Court of Appeals refused to stop the use of eminent domain for an arena for the NBA Nets and private development project in Brooklyn.  It now has an opportunity to redeem itself in this decision.

In the wake of Kelo, 43 states have passed laws to limit the ability of government officials to abuse eminent domain, and state court after state court has rejected Kelo-style takings.  New York stands alone in its abject failure to provide its citizens with any meaningful protection from eminent domain for private gain, and this case represents an opportunity for enough to, finally, be enough.

Robert McNamara, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said, “New York is the worst abuser of eminent domain in the country.  New York’s courts have been looking to the legislature to fix this problem, while the legislature has been looking to the courts.  Meanwhile, New Yorkers have been looking at condemnation notices.  It is past time for the New York Court of Appeals to give the state’s citizens the property rights protections promised in their state constitution.”

New York laws are hopelessly stacked against property owners.  For years, New York’s courts turned a blind eye to the enormous benefits afforded to private developers, outrageous behavior on the part of government officials, and even blatant evidence that the projects would be miserable flops.  IJ released its statewide analysis, Building Empires, Destroying Homes:  Eminent Domain Abuse in New York (pdf), which shows just how badly New York agencies have been abusing their power.  The Associated Press reported that IJ documented how New York is “a hotbed of abuse, with 2,226 properties statewide either condemned or threatened with condemnation through eminent domain in the past decade to allow for private development.”

Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice, said, “Your right to own your property shouldn’t depend on what state you live in.  New York’s courts must put a stop to these land grabs and tell Columbia—a private institution—that government power will no longer be at their disposal.  Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage and the rest of the property owners are heroes who are standing up not only for their rights, but for the property rights of all New Yorkers.  Every New Yorker should get behind them and demand that the courts protect their constitutionally enshrined rights.  If the Court does not recognize at least some outer limit on government’s eminent domain power, then all property in the state is at risk.”

Among those participating in the post-argument press conference will be:  Norman Siegel (attorney for Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage owner Nick Sprayregen), Nick Sprayregen, Amanjit Kaur (property owner and party to this lawsuit), New York State Senator Bill Perkins, Tom DeMott (Coalition to Preserve Community), Nellie Bailey (Harlem Tenants Association), Luis Tejada (Mirabal Sisters), Walter South (Community Board 9), Daniel Goldstein (Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn), Mike Elmendorf (New York director of the National Federation of Independent Business) and Christina Walsh (director of activism and coalitions, Institute for Justice).