Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Issue of Eminent Domain May Hinder Columbia in Harlem

Issue of Eminent Domain May Hinder Columbia in Harlem
Staff Reporter of the Sun
December 12, 2007

A fight over the use of eminent domain is shaping up at City Hall, as the City Council approaches a vote on Columbia University's plan to expand its campus by 17 acres in Harlem.

Although the council is not explicitly deciding whether the university could use eminent domain to acquire land for its desired expansion, several council members said eminent domain would be at the heart of hearings on Columbia's proposed rezoning, because approval from the council would pave the way for its use. The hearings begin today.

Columbia is planning to spend $6 billion to expand into an area that includes a few properties the university has not been able to purchase.

The chairman of the Zoning and Franchises Committee, Council Member Tony Avella, said he couldn't support a plan that would lead to the use of eminent domain to seize property.

"You can't ignore the fact that what you do will affect, down the line, the use of eminent domain," Mr. Avella said, adding that he would argue at City Hall that eminent domain can't be divorced from the rezoning Columbia wants.

"When you play chess, you look at several moves down the line. You don't just look at the move you are making," he said. "Clearly we are going to set the stage for the use of eminent domain if they can't reach a settlement."
He said if eminent domain were left unchecked, it would jeopardize every property owner in the city.

Council Member Robert Jackson, who represents the area Columbia wants to rezone, said he is concerned about the benefits the project could bring his district and is not focused on defending the property owners who could lose their buildings through eminent domain.

"Columbia has said they are willing to negotiate with the remaining land owners," Mr. Jackson said, suggesting that the issue may be resolved without legal action. "I'm hoping that a consensus can be reached."

Council Member Letitia James said she was not yet sure how she would vote, but noted that eminent domain would be weighed heavily in her decision.

"I'm obviously very concerned about the abuse of eminent domain in the city of New York," Ms. James said. "That is a major obstacle in my support for this project."

The question of eminent domain has taken a front seat in city politics recently in connection with several high-profile projects. In Brooklyn, residents sued developer Bruce Ratner over the Atlantic Yards development, which Ms. James opposed, citing an abuse of eminent domain laws to force them from their homes.

In Queens, a proposed development at Willets Point threatens to become a battleground for eminent domain, as local businesses say they will not sell their property.

The Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. New London decision allows for cities to invoke eminent domain for private economic development.

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