For Nick Sprayregen, the owner of a set of West Harlem warehouses in the footprint of a 17-acre expansion planned by Columbia University, there was a brief glimmer of hope earlier this year. The landlord, to the surprise of most everyone watching, won a state appellate court case that challenged the state’s use of eminent domain to take his property for Columbia’s campus, with a judge writing a blistering opinion that excoriated the state agency leading the process. Contrary to most precedents, it seemed possible that Mr. Sprayregen might actually stave off a land-taking and defeat the university.
Today, the narrative returned to its expected track.
New York’s top court Thursday morning issued a decision that overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that eminent domain could indeed proceed.
The Court of Appeals, in a 7-0 decision, found that the Manhattan appellate court was improper in ruling for Mr. Sprayregen, as precedent clearly is on the side of the state, the area is indeed blighted, and the courts generally are deferential to the state agency.
From the ruling:
Since there is record support – “extensively documented photographically and otherwise on a lot-by-lot basis” (id. at 526) – for ESDC’s determination that the Project site was blighted, the Appellate Division plurality erred when it substituted its view for that of the legislatively designated agency.
Even the member of the court who is most skeptical of the use of eminent domain, Robert Smith, approved, issuing a concurring opinion. Mr. Smith was the lone dissenter in a case that challenged the use of eminent domain to build a basketball arena and housing in Brooklyn, brought by Daniel Goldstein and other landowners.
“The finding of ‘blight’ in this case seems to me strained and pretextual, but it is no more so than the comparable finding in Goldstein,” Mr. Smith wrote. “Accepting Goldstein as I must, I agree in substance with all but section VI of the majority opinion.”
A half hour after receiving emails about the decision, Mr. Sprayregen suggested he might appeal.
“We’re certainly going to give serious consideration to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review this decision,” he said. “I think that overall it’s a very bad day for anyone who cares about constitutional rights and civil liberties and the sanctity of private property.”
[Update 1:55 p.m. Mr. Sprayregen, in an email, vowed to appeal. "After speaking to my attorney Norman Siegel just a few minutes ago, I instructed him to immediately start the process to appeal this disastrous decision to the United States Supreme Court," he wrote. "This decision, if not overturned, will allow eminent domain abuse in New York to become even worse than it is now. In effect, this court is sending a clear signal that a blight designation, even is caused by the very developer seeking the use of eminent domain, is acceptable."]
At the beginning of the month, the court heard arguments from the Empire State Development Corp. that the area was blighted, and that the expansion would be an improvement project for the community at large — thereby justifying the school’s use of eminent domain to acquire the land. But former New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Norman Siegel, arguing against the expansion on behalf of Mr. Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur, said in court that if the expansion were a CUNY project, the story would be different. “It changes the dynamic,” he said. “They [Columbia] are a private institution, and therefore they can’t become a civic project.”
Although Mr. Sprayregen doesn’t live in the area, the project threatened the Manhattanville branch of his garishly orange line of storage warehouses, Tuck-It-Away Storage. At one point, he compared Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s enthusiasm for the expansion to that of a religious zealot, telling the Columbia Daily Spectator in 2009 that, “It’s like Saddam Hussein drawing a line in the sand, where they drew the boundaries of this irregular shaped campus, but never explained why it had to be just like that.”
In a statement, Warner Johnston, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., the agency leading the project, praised the decision:
“Empire State Development is very pleased with the Court of Appeals unanimous ruling in favor of the Columbia Manhattanville project. This confirms that the project complies with New York State law in all respects and that the acquisition of the holdout properties is essential to realizing the vision for the Manhattanville campus as it was approved by the State.”