Tuesday's New York Court of Appeals Oral Argument in Kaur v. ESDC

by Allison McCarty

Maffucci Fellow, Institute for Justice

Tensions simmered between the rightful owners of two Manhattanville small businesses and Columbia University officials in Tuesday’s oral argument before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. In Kaur v. Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state is fighting to seize through eminent domain the businesses of Nick Sprayegen and the Singh family for a $6.3 billion expansion of Columbia University, a private, Ivy League school.

Tuesday’s 45-minute hearing was the most recent chapter in the ongoing fight for New Yorkers’ private property rights. Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said, “This is the kind of abuse of government power on behalf of powerful private interests the Framers of the Constitution sought to prevent when they drafted the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and required that private property could only be taken for a public use. Taking someone’s land for a private institution like Columbia for its private use and profit is not a public use.”

Unsurprisingly, the Empire State Development Corporation is currently appealing a December 2009 New York Appellate Division ruling that agreed.

For years, Columbia University and the ESDC have been purchasing properties in the Manattanville neighborhood for the costly 17-acre expansion. Their aggressive plans leave no room for two business owners who simply want to keep what they’ve worked so hard to own. Both Nick Sprayegen, who owns Tuck-It-Away Storage, and the Singh family, which operates two gas stations, have invested a quarter of a century in their businesses and the local community. “This is everything I have,” said Mr. Singh, a 47-year old immigrant from India, as he stood in front of one of his gas stations. But this American Dream is unmoving to the wealthy, politically-connected school that wants more—and has co-opted government force to obtain it.

The ESDC defends its actions by claiming that the neighborhood is “blighted”—a bogus and indefensible complaint considering most of the run-down properties in question are owned and under the care of Columbia University. In fact, the consulting firm charged with declaring the properties blighted—AKRF—was a contractor for the school itself. With Columbia University’s fingerprints tainting all evidence, it seems that Columbia’s private interest, not a legitimate “public purpose,” motivated these eminent domain takings. Accordingly, the New York Appellate Division ruled that there is “no credible proof of blight in Manhattanville” and accused the ESDC of “mere sophistry.”

Such sophistry is all too common when private developers team up with their political allies to take others’ property through eminent domain, an abuse of power that runs rampant in the Empire State. IJ has documented 2,226 properties in New York that have either been condemned or threatened with condemnation for private development since 1998—and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

With this high-profile case, the New York Court of Appeals has the opportunity to decide whether individual rights are protected from or nullified by the prerogative of the politically-connected. A ruling is not expected for another six weeks, but the property owners and their advocates remain hopeful.

Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice, said, “Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage and the rest of the property owners are heroes who are standing up not only for their rights, but for the property rights of all New Yorkers. Every New Yorker should get behind them and demand that the courts protect their constitutionally enshrined rights. If the Court does not recognize at least some outer limit on government’s eminent domain power, then all property in the state is at risk.”

IJ and fellow advocates held a press conference outside of the court after Tuesday’s hearing. Attendees included property owner Nick Sprayregen and his attorney Norman Siegel; fellow property owner and party to the lawsuit Amanjit Kaur; New York State Senator Bill Perkins; Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community; Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Association; Luis Tejada of the Mirabal Sisters; Walter South of Community Board 9; Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn; Mike Elmendorf, the New York Director of the National Federation of Independent Business; and Christina Walsh, IJ’s director of activism and coalitions. The diverse group of concerned activists and property owners from across Harlem and New York City and State implored the New York Court of Appeals to bring an end to the abuse of eminent domain in New York, and pledged to continue fighting until every home, business, church and farm owner is able to keep the property they’ve worked so hard to own.