U.S. Supreme Court Decides Whether to Hear New York Eminent Domain Abuse Case 

John Kramer
John Kramer · December 6, 2010


Arlington, Va.—On Friday, December 10, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to decide whether to take Nick Sprayregen’s appeal and protect his family’s property. You have probably never heard of Nick Sprayregen, but his legal challenge has the potential to impact the lives of ordinary Americans more than most cases seeking U.S. Supreme Court consideration.

It is exactly because he is such an ordinary American that his experience should be taken to heart, because unless the U.S. Supreme Court takes some specific action on his behalf and stops the actions of a politically powerful private interest, the fate of his family business could be the fate of your home, your family business or any other property you and your family own.

Even though Nick worked hard his whole life, he now stands to lose what is rightfully his because of government’s use of eminent domain for someone else’s private gain.

The politicians and judges in New York, where he lives, have turned their backs on his constitutional rights. Now, the fate of his property and his family’s future lies in the hands of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. If they do not take his case and reject their infamous Kelo ruling from five years ago, Nick Sprayregen will be the latest American to lose his private property and constitutional rights, but he won’t be the last.

In 1980, Nick’s father created a self-storage business in West Harlem called Tuck-it-Away. Self-storage back then was a new idea in the region and their business thrived. Nick joined the family business, ultimately taking it over after his father retired and expanding it to more than a dozen locations beyond their West Harlem headquarters. For Nick, his business represents a secure little corner of the world that is his own—a hard-earned possession he hopes some day to pass on to his children.

In 2004, however, his American Dream started to turn into an American nightmare. Columbia University—a private institution—began its efforts to expand its research facilities—which generate millions of dollars in private profits for the school each year. Columbia has convinced the Empire State Development Corporation to help it expand the private university’s facilities onto the very land where Nick’s business now stands. While New York’s Appellate Division invalidated the taking on the grounds that it (and the “blight” designation it was based on) was nothing more than a land-grab designed to advance Columbia’s private interests, the Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) reversed that decision, holding that the state’s courts were not allowed to second-guess the government’s decision to seize private property.

Chip Mellor, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice, which represented the homeowners in the Kelo case, said, “The U.S. Supreme Court needs to take up this case and demonstrate by example that judges must step up and fulfill their constitutional obligation to act as a check on abuses of our rights by the executive and legislative branches when those branches overstep their bounds. Eminent domain abuse is the poster child calling out for this kind of judicial engagement to replace the judicial ‘restraint’ that won’t allow judges to question the actions of the other branches of government. The Supreme Court must clear the way to allow judges to judge.”

Nick Sprayregen said, “From the very first day I heard about its proposed expansion onto my land, Columbia has never tried to negotiate with me. They immediately sought the use of eminent domain to take my business from me and the property of my neighbors, and the state eagerly obliged. The Empire State Development Corporation, a quasi-government agency that does developers’ bidding, succeeded in forcing 33 property owners in West Harlem to sell under the threat of eminent domain.”

Sprayregen pointed out, “The surrounding vacant properties—most of which Columbia owns—have been allowed to deteriorate, and without any recognition of the hypocrisy involved, the state now points to those properties as justifying the declaration of our neighborhood and my business as ‘blighted’ so it may hand all of this land over to Columbia University.”

Holding all the cards, Columbia refused any suggestion by Sprayregen to swap his land for other property Columbia owns. With politically powerful friends in place to help the university replace his business with its private venture, the university wouldn’t budge.

Dana Berliner, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, said, “Eminent domain is supposed to be for public uses, projects the public will own and use, such as a road or a post office. Eminent domain is not for private institutions like Columbia to expand their profit-making efforts, yet that is what it is being used for in the Sprayregen case.”

Berliner said, “Keep in mind, without employing the government helping Columbia to take Sprayregen’s land, Columbia would be powerless to do anything but privately negotiate with him. The most common example of eminent domain abuse is when the government rents out its power of eminent domain to fulfill the wishes of private institutions like Columbia. The Supreme Court should step in and stop this travesty.”

Unfortunately for property owners in states like New York, Connecticut and elsewhere, government officials there have followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Kelo v. City of New London in which five justices blurred the meaning of “public use” to mean anything that could potentially provide a “public benefit” in the form of things like more jobs and taxes. The projects don’t actually have to create these things, however; they only need to merely have the potential to create them. The land where Susette Kelo’s home once stood remains fallow now five years after that ruling and Pfizer, the Columbia-like private giant that spurred on the taking of her land, has since announced it is abandoning New London.

Mellor said, “James Madison envisioned the courts as the ‘bulwarks of liberty’—institutions that would serve as a sure and solid wall to protect our constitutional rights (including our right to private property) when other government institutions sought to take them away. But instead, the New York high court and so far the Supreme Court itself have abandoned that vital role and instead merely rubber stamp the decisions of other government actors, destroying not only our rights and our properties, but with them our dreams of better tomorrows for ourselves and our families.”

Click here to view a pdf of IJ’s Amicus Brief.