Back in December I reported that the New York State Supreme Court awarded two small businesses a big victory over Columbia University, ruling that property owners can't be forced to give up land the school needs for an expansion project.
The court ruled that the Empire State Development Corporation a state agency tried to stack the deck in Columbia’s favor and called the project a "Scheme". The court said that NY state "colluded" with Columbia to produce the very conditions that would then allow ESDC to seize property. The court ruling said "taking the properties to benefit an elite private university is unconstitutional and unwarranted.
This week, in a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals overturned the lower court ruling that prohibited the state from using eminent domain to take property in the 17-acre Columbia expansion zone west of Broadway, known as Manhattanville, without the owners’ consent.
The ruling held that the courts must give deference to the state’s determination that the area was “blighted” and that condemnation on behalf of a university served a public purpose, two ways that the project could qualify for eminent domain under state law.
The ruling cited an earlier decision in the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards case. The opinion, written by Judge Ciparick “We ruled for Atlantic Yards, and if we could rule in favor of a basketball arena, surely we could rule for a nonprofit university.”
The lower court agreed with the property owners that the area was not "blighted" and never became blighted until Columbia took over control of the majority of property. The appeals court said the lower court ignored a study from 2003 that declared the area blighted and the property owner, the owner of Tuck-Away Storage had three times the average number of building violations compared with those on parcels acquired by Columbia.
Unfortunately this ruling threatens property rights. According to legal experts it is practically impossible to stop a condemnation in New York because of the courts’ deference to agencies’ determination. In other words the courts are rubber stampers for the state.
The property owner plans to continue to fight. Both Columbia University and the state agency issued statements saying how the expansion of Columbia will enhance the neighborhood, create thousands of good jobs for New Yorkers and help the city and state remain a global center for pioneering academic research.
Opponents are not against Columbia University expanding they are against the use of eminent domain.