Nick Sprayregen knew the chances were slim that the Supreme Court would hear his case against the state and, by extension Columbia University, yet still, the owner of Tuck-It-Away self-storage held out hope.
“It was a shocking decision, even with the chance of the court taking the case being 1 percent,” Sprayregen told The Observer by phone today. He was referring to the odds that all cases face in being heard by the court, though he believed his had a good chance, both on merit and import, given the particulars of his suit and the dearth of opinions from the high court since it decided the landmark Kelo case five years ago, which basically rewrote the rules around eminent domain.
“I thought we’ve put together, in terms of facts, about the strongest case anyone could,” Sprayregen continued. “What the state and Columbia have done to collude on this is horrifying. We really thought they’d take a look at this. It strikes fear in me for others about how anyone else could put together a stronger case. We spent six years on this. How anyone else will mount a stronger challenge to eminent domain, I don’t know.”
Sprayregen owns four storage facilities in the footprint of Columbia’s planned Manhattanville campus, which he says the university has never offered to buy, trying to coerce him into a deal instead. Along with the owners of a gas station located within the project, Sprayregen sued. Given the state’s considerably broad eminent domain powers — libertarian groups rank New York as one of the worst states in terms of eminent domain abuse — and given the failure of Atlantic Yards opponents to challenge that project in court, the Columbia case seemed like a long shot.
That was until last December, when a state court made a surprising ruling that the state and Columbia had improperly worked together to craft a plan with limited public benefit. That was overturned in the summer, and “the narrative returned to its expected track,” as The Observer wrote at the time. The state was once again in the driver’s seat with Sprayregen banking on the whims of the judiciary.
The Supreme Court does not issue opinions when it declines to hear a case, so it is unknown whether this was simply another casualty of a selective docket or a matter the justices simply had no interest in addressing. After all, 43 states — New York not among them — have overhauled or altered their eminent domain statutes since the Kelo decision. Perhaps the justices, as has been the case time and again for the Atlantic Yards suits, believe this is a matter to be decided by the legislatures of the land, and not the courts.
Sprayregen believes this was the wrong decision, and it has set a precedent that will make it even harder to challenge eminent domain in the future. “This is what the courts are there for, to stand up for people’s rights, to protect the minority against the majority,” he said. He called the eminent domain issue insidious, that, unlike abortion, the threat is invisible until it is too late. “This opens the floodgates in a way we may not yet appreciate. Who knows what could happen in the coming years and decades?”
Sprayregen said he and his legal team are exploring their options, but those seem to be limited at the moment.
Columbia declined to discuss the case — the state, not the university, is the defendent — though university president Lee Bollinger did release a statement that said, in part: “We look forward to continuing our progress on this long-term plan that will help upper Manhattan remain a global center of new knowledge and create new jobs for New Yorkers over the coming years.”
The Empire State Development Corporation, which helped Columbia prepare the project and was the party being sued by Sprayregen, had this to say:
ESDC is pleased that the petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court that was filed by opponents of the Columbia Manhattanville project has been denied and that the New York Court of Appeals decision stands. This victory represents a significant step toward achieving the many goals of the project, including strengthening New York as an international center for premier education and academic research programs, improving facilities and infrastructure within the footprint and the surrounding community, generating thousands of jobs for New Yorkers and creating much-needed open space in the neighborhood.
Looks like the West Harlem rezoning is arriving just in time.