NYC Communities Band Together To Fight Eminent Domain

Driving home from the Castle Coalition’s National Conference in June 2007, Brooklyn resident Lumi Michelle Rolley kept thinking about what property owners in New York City could do about the rampant eminent domain abuse in several neighborhoods throughout the metropolis.

One comment from an IJ attorney at the conference stood out in her memory.  Asked by another New Yorker for the prospects of a court victory in New York to stop eminent domain abuse, the attorney, with a case pending in New York, sighed with frustration and said that the best hope for any type of reform would come from citizens coming together and putting pressure on politicians to change the law.

Property owners in three of the four major redevelopment areas in New York had already met and shared their stories with each other at the conference.  Rolley, working from the ties made at the conference, made some phone calls in an effort to organize all of these disparate groups divided by geography but united against the threat of eminent domain abuse.  By the end of June, the group, New Yorkers Against Eminent Domain Abuse, had been established and had held their first rally on the steps of the New York city hall.

The broad coalition of New Yorkers includes 22 different community groups and four city council members.  The anchor groups of the coalition include citizen groups from four major redevelopment areas in New York City: West Harlem, Atlantic Yards, Duffield Street and Willets Point.

The group cites several reasons why the situation in New York needs to be reformed, including increased eminent domain abuse since Kelo, lack of legislative reform and rampant declarations of “bogus” blight.

Rolley said the idea of the group is simple. “If we could ever get to know one another, we could help each other,” she said.[1]

Rolley acknowledged that being effective will take a lot of work, but members will be able to benefit from their collective experience even though the major redevelopment areas are at different crucial points in the process.  Atlantic Yards is currently in the courts, while West Harlem is awaiting decisions of city officials, and in Willets Point, it is early enough in the process that some business owners do not think the city will even follow through on its threat to use eminent domain.

“Getting New Yorkers to coalesce around a single issue is very hard,” said Rolley. “New Yorkers are blasé about eminent domain, and most people don’t identify with those outside of their neighborhood or clique.”

But, she acknowledged, that is exactly why she believes it was important for a group like New Yorkers Against Eminent Domain Abuse to form. Not only will threatened property owners be united, but they will, in turn, gain further support by educating their fellow residents about the abuse of eminent domain. 

One of the main areas Rolley said the coalition will be effective is the media.

“We want to keep eminent domain in the news,” said Rolley. “Property owners have to understand that any place being rezoned is a place ripe for redevelopment.”

But reporters who cover the various situations need some help connecting the dots, too.

“Establishing a pattern is so important,” Rolley said. “For example, West Harlem is exactly where we in Brooklyn were a year ago.”

Through the coalition, Rolley said, Brooklyn residents have been able to attend events in West Harlem and tell reporters that what West Harlem residents are hearing from their local officials is exactly what residents in Atlantic Yards heard a year ago.

Rolley also said the group has some of the long-term goals, which include moving beyond the city to establish ties with citizens across the state to advocate for reform in the New York legislature.

Working on the local level, however, is the most immediate task for the group, Rolley said. 

“We formed because we need to make people understand that this isn’t just a small group of people protesting,” she said. “We’re trying to protect the rights of all New Yorkers.”

[1] All quotes from a telephone interview with Lumi Michelle Rolley conducted by Chris Grodecki on July 30, 2007.