Syracuse Home & Business Owners Team Up to Defend Their Property

In 2005, Syracuse-based developer Pyramid Companies proposed to build to a research and development park called Destiny USA in Salina, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse. The developer assumed the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency (OCIDA) would pave the way for the $2.6 billion project by acquiring privately owned land through the development agency’s eminent domain powers. Two years later, because of the continued dedication of the Salina 29, a group of business and homeowners threatened by the proposal, billionaire developer Robert Congel has dropped his request that the city acquire the land for him.

The area Congel wanted to have condemned contains 27 successful businesses and two homes. The owners of the properties came together to oppose the abuse of eminent domain by OCIDA because the agency would have transferred their privately owned properties directly to Destiny USA.

After two years and no construction, OCIDA was close to terminating the application for the project. In January, Congel indicated he would modify the application. Two month later, Destiny USA submitted a new plan, which left out the request for OCIDA to use eminent domain to acquire the properties.[1]

Destiny USA’s plan is beyond ambitious and must appear extremely tempting to local officials. Besides the research and development park, the plan calls for what seems to be a Congel-owned city within Salina and nearby Syracuse. The first phase of the plan, a mall expansion in Syracuse, is already under way. In addition to being run free of fossil fuels, “Destiny USA will own all of the dining, entertainment, retail and hospitality venues” in the area 90 percent of whose employees will be on Destiny USA’s payroll. Its website promises Destiny USA “will attract more people, more often, and more profitably than anything ever built.”

With such overblown hype, it is no wonder Congel felt that the properties owned by the Salina 29 were “underutilized” and should be taken by the government and incorporated into the third phase of its plan. From the beginning, however, members of the Salina 29 were confident that what they had spent their entire lives building up would not be torn down by condemnation.

In 2005, Philip Jakes-Johnson, owner of Solvent and Petroleum Services, told The New York Times, “Here’s the difference. We’re here. We pay our taxes. We built companies and run them without tax breaks. So we don’t have what he [Congel] has. We have something better.”[2]

Although OCIDA did not approve Destiny USA’s plan in June 2005, it hadn’t rejected it either, leaving the property owners in limbo. In that time, the Salina 29 group organized itself and, with the help of the Castle Coalition, began a community-based campaign to oppose the project. By the end of 2006, the group was able to convince OCIDA that all project applications should expire after one year if a plan had not progressed. [3]

Although the revised application does not include “eminent domain” specifically, it does not specifically exclude it either. In what could be a good sign for the Salina 29, however, Congel sent a letter telling OCIDA he was withdrawing “all pending requests related to the use of eminent domain.”[4] In addition, Donald Western, the county economic development director, told The Post-Standard that he understands the new application’s use of “publicly owned lands” to mean those already publicly owned by the time the application was submitted.[5]

The work and dedication Salina 29 has demonstrated during the past two years shows the strength a united group of property owners can have in the face of eminent domain abuse. Although the situation is far from over, they have accomplished what they set out to do from the very beginning: to stop the government’s seizure of their land for private use.

[1] Rick Moriarty, “Agency considers technology park aid request; developer submits new application to agency. It leaves out eminent domain,” The Post-Standard, March 9, 2007.

[2] Peter Applebome, “Clear the Way, Fellows. The Yellow Brick Road Is Coming Through,” The New York Times, May 8, 2005.

[3] Rick Moriarty, “Agency presses Destiny on eminent domain; Developer Congel has 90 days to file new paperwork on scaled-back Salina project,” The Post-Standard, January 12, 2007.

[4] Rick Moriarty, “Eminent domain off the table,” The Post-Standard, January 6, 2007.

[5] Moriarty, March 9, 2007.