Private Property Rights Vindicated in Manhattanville

Politically-connected Columbia University officials wanted to expand their campus by an astonishing 17 acres in the small neighborhood of Manhattanville in West Harlem. But one problem stood in their way: they did not own the land they needed to make their desired expansion possible. Their solution? Use connections to strike a deal with the State of New York to seize homes and businesses by eminent domain.

The city conducted a “blight study,” and unsurprisingly concluded that the area was blighted and in need of redevelopment. This paved the way for the condemnations and Columbia’s expansion.

One of the small businesses targeted was Tuck-It-Away, a local storage facility. The owner, Nick Sprayregen, did not want to relocate his business. He had found an area that needed his services and forced relocation would mean him losing his valued customers.

Today, New York’s Appellate Court defended Nick’s right to keep what he’s worked so hard to own by ruling there to be “no credible proof of blight in Manhattanville”:

The exercise of eminent domain power by the New York State Urban Development Corporation d/b/a Empire State Development Corporation (hereinafter referred to as “ESDC”) to benefit a private elite education institution is violative of the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution, article 1, § 7 of the New York Constitution, and the “first principles of the social contract.” The process employed by ESDC predetermined the unconstitutional outcome, was bereft of facts which established that the neighborhood in question was blighted, and ultimately precluded the petitioners from presenting a full record before either the ESDC or, ultimately, this Court. In short, it is a skein worth unraveling.

Moreover, they recognized that eminent domain should only be used for purposes of public use – not a private, elite organization’s expansion.

The use of eminent domain should also be rejected on the grounds that Columbia’s expansion is not a “civic project.” See Uncons Laws § 6253(6)(d) (UDCA 3(6)(d)). ESDC states that the project will be used by Columbia for “education related uses,” and thus the project serves a civic purpose. The petitioners correctly contend that within the definition of Uncons. Laws § 6253(6)(d) (UDCA 3(6)(d)), a private university does not constitute facilities for a “civic project.” The statutory definition does refer to educational uses, but the final clause “or other civic purposes,” clearly restricts the educational purposes qualifying for a civic project to only such educational purposes as constitute a “civic purpose.”

Read the full decision here.