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N.Y. Court of Appeals Reverses Appellate Division and Says Columbia University Condemnation May Proceed

In a rebuke to the Appellate Division First Department, the New York Court of Appeals today held that the condemnation of land on the upper west side of Manhattan to benefit Columbia University may go forward. In Matter of Kaur v New York State Urban Dev. Corp., the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division rejection of the proposed condemnation and, in reliance on its recent holding in Matter of Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Corporation, held that the findings of (1) blight, (2) that the petitioner’s property qualified as a “land use improvement project” and (3) the finding of a “civic purpose” to the project, were “rationally based and entitled to deference.”

The proposal is for development of a new 17 acre campus for Columbia University. Over the last decade Columbia has acquire a majority of the parcels in the area, however, a number of property owners have held out and this challenge is to the proposal by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to utilize its authority under the Eminent Domain Procedure Law (EDPL) to acquire the balance of the parcels within the area covered by ESDC’s General Project Plan (GPP) to implement the Columbia proposal. After reviewing the history of the case, the Court reviewed and struck down each of the holdings of the Appellate Division.

The Court noted that the main argument in opposition was that the condemnation is not for the purpose of putting the properties to a “public use” within the meaning of the New York Constitution and that the findings of blight were arrived at in bad faith. The Court noted that in “Matter of Goldstein, we reaffirmed the longstanding doctrine that the role of the Judiciary is limited in reviewing findings of blight in eminent domain proceedings…Thus, given our precedent, the de novo review of the record undertaken by the plurality of the Appellate Division was improper. On the “record upon which the ESDC determination was based and by which we are bound” (id. at 517, citing Matter of Levine v New York State Liq. Auth., 23 NY2d 863, 864 [1969]), it cannot be said that ESDC’s finding of blight was irrational or baseless. Indeed, ESDC considered a wide range of factors including the physical, economic, engineering and environmental conditions at the Project site. Its decision was not based on any one of these factors, but on the Project site conditions as a whole. Accordingly, since there is record support – “extensively documented photographically and otherwise on a lot-by-lot basis” (id. at 526) – for ESDC’s determination that the Project site was blighted, the Appellate Division plurality erred when it substituted its view for that of the legislatively designated agency.”

The Court then went on to discount the claim of bad faith by ESDC, noting that the ESDC had undertaken multiple studies of the area and, in rejecting any findings by the Appellate Division to the contrary, found no support in the record for any finding of bad faith.

The next claim discussed was that the term used to define a blighted area “substandard or insanitary area” is void for vagueness. In likewise rejecting that claim the Court stated: “blight is an elastic concept that does not call for an inflexible, one-size-fits-all definition (see Berman v Parker, 348 US 26, 33-34 [1954]). Rather, blight or “substandard or insanitary areas,” as we held in Matter of Goldstein and Yonkers Community Dev. Agency, must be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, because the UDC Act provides adequate meaning to the term “substandard or insanitary area,” we reject petitioners’ argument that the statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face.”

Then in dismissing the finding by the Appellate Division, which seemed (at least to some) the most likely to separate this case from others and form a basis for upholding that decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s finding that the area was not blighted before the majority of the properties were acquired by Columbia and that Columbia, in effect, caused the current blighting condition by vacating and neglecting the properties it had acquired.

“In determining that Columbia created the blighted conditions in West Harlem, the plurality of the Appellate Division disregarded the Urbitran blight study commenced in 2003. That study, made at EDC’s request and not ESDC’s, was based on a survey of the Project site and surrounding neighborhood at a time when Columbia was only beginning to purchase property in the area. Indeed, the Urbitran study unequivocally concluded that there was “ample evidence of deterioration of the building stock in the study area” and that “substandard and unsanitary conditions were detected in the area.” Moreover, Earth Tech found that, since 1961, the neighborhood has suffered from a long-standing lack of investment interest. Thus, since there is record support that the Project site was blighted before Columbia began to acquire property in the area, the issue is beyond our further review.”

In further rejecting the Appellate Division determination that this is a private project, the Court concluded that this project fell with the UDC Act definition of a a “civic project.” It noted that this is an educational institution and that “education and the expansion of knowledge are pivotal government interests.” Further, the Court noted other civic benefits from the project such as open space, transit infrastructure improvements and job growth.

Finally, the Court rejected the claim that there was a deprivation of due process because of a FOIL violation, which was later remedied in favor of the property owners. Noting first that there is no discovery permitted in this phase of a condemnation proceeding, the Court held that the release of substantial numbers of documents (8,000 pages) as well as the lengthy submission made by the objectors demonstrated that they had a fair opportunity to present their case.

“Here, petitioners have not met their burden, neither explaining how they were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard during the administrative process nor demonstrating the materiality of the records sought through FOIL.”

The Court therefore conclude:

“In sum, we give deference to the findings and determination of the ESDC that the Project qualifies as both a land use improvement project and as a civic project serving a public purpose under the UDC Act. We further conclude that petitioners were not deprived of procedural due process.”

-Steven Silverberg