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 ), 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.”