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New York’s Highest Court Upholds Eminent Domain for Columbia University Expansion Project

By: Vicki Shiah

On Thursday, June 24, 2010, New York’s highest court approved the Empire State Development Corporation‘s (“ESDC”) use of eminent domain to acquire land in West Harlem that will be used to support Columbia University’s campus expansionKaur v. New York State Urban Dev. Corp., No. 125, __ N.Y.3d ___ (2010), consolidated with Tuck-It-Away v. New York State Urban Dev. Corp., No. 125, __ N.Y.3d ___ (2010) (collectively, “Kaur“).  In a unanimous decision authored by Judge Cipatrick, the Court of Appeals reversed a ruling of the Appellate Division, First Department that ESDC could not condemn property for Columbia’s expansion project.  Relying on its recent decision in Goldstein v. New York State Urban Dev. Corp., 13 N.Y.3d 511 (2009) (“Goldstein“), in which the Court upheld ESDC’s use of eminent domain to acquire land for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, in the Kaur case the Court of Appeals deferred to ESDC and criticized the Appellate Division for undertaking an improper de novo review of the record.

In December 2008, ESDC determined to use its condemnation power to acquire 17 acres of privately-owned property, including petitioners’, in connection with Columbia’s expansion plan.  ESDC found that the project qualified under the Urban Development Corporation Act as both a “land use improvement project” (because the project would eliminate blighted conditions) and as a “civic project” (because the project would provide educational facilities).  The $6.28 billion project, which is being exclusively underwritten by Columbia, a private non-profit institution, will comprise 6.6 million gross square feet in 16 new buildings, 2 acres of open space, and other structures.  Petitioners contested ESDC’s designation of the project area as “blighted,” and challenged the integrity of the two neighborhood studies commissioned by ESDC that supported its blight finding, arguing that the studies were biased and demonstrated bad faith on the agency’s part.  Petitioners also argued that the “civic project” designation was impermissible because Columbia is a private, not a public, entity.

In Thursday’s Kaur decision, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed that the judiciary has a limited role in reviewing the actions of ESDC, a quasi-legislative entity.  Citing Goldstein, the Court noted that ESDC was authorized by the state legislature, and that a court “may only substitute its own judgment for that of the legislative body authorizing the project when such judgment is irrational or baseless.”  The Court rejected petitioners’ arguments that ESDC acted in bad faith and with pretext, finding no evidence to support such allegations.  The Court instead held that ESDC’s determination was made rationally and in good faith, and that the separate neighborhood conditions studies on which ESDC relied were creditable and not biased.  The Court then cited blight evidence dating back to the 1960s to reject petitioners’ argument that Columbia created blight by neglecting the project-area properties that it acquired starting in the early 2000s.  The Court also held that the UDC Act’s definition of a “substandard or insanitary” (i.e., blighted) area was not unconstitutionally vague.

The Court of Appeals made new law in New York by holding that “civic projects” under the UDC Act are not limited to public institutions, and may in fact include projects proposed by private educational institutions.  After noting that the Columbia project “unquestionably [] promote[s] education and academic research while providing public benefits to the local community,” the Court rejected the First Department’s determination that the statutory language is limited to public entities.  In a concurring opinion, Judge Smith stated that because the Court upheld ESDC’s blight determination, the civic project doctrine need not have been reached, and that it was subject to constitutional constraints that the Court failed to address.

Finally, the Court rejected petitioners’ claims that ESDC violated their procedural due process rights by closing the administrative record and proceeding with the condemnation despite ongoing disputes as to whether ESDC was required to turn over additional documents to petitioners.  The Court stated that a violation of the Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) only rises to a due process violation where petitioners can demonstrate that they were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard, or demonstrating that materiality of the records sought through FOIL.  The Court found that ESDC did not withhold documents that formed part of the administrative record, and that petitioners had unfettered access to thousands of pages of documents, including those at the core of ESDC’s action.  Noting that the legislature intended for expedient condemnation proceedings that did not allow for any discovery, the Court held that petitioners failed to meet their burden.

According to the New York Times, petitioners plan to seek review of the decision by the United States Supreme Court.

SPR serves as environmental counsel for the Empire State Development Corporation, and Mark Chertok and Dan Chorost served as co-counsel to ESDC’s eminent domain counsel in the Kaur case.  David Paget and Dan Chorost served as co-counsel for ESDC in the Goldstein case.   A copy of ESDC’s appellate brief is available here (pdf), and reply brief here (pdf).

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