The Westchester County Legislature is presently considering a law to curb the use of taxpayer money in cases where wealthy developers try to get the government to use the power of "Eminent Domain" to take private property for new development. The County Board should pass this law quickly and local legislatures like our own City Council should do the same.
In a nutshell, the so-called power of "eminent domain" allows the government to take private land if it is necessary for a public purpose. The landowner has to be compensated, but that is no comfort to a landowner who does not want to sell in the first place. Traditionally, a "public purpose" was understood to mean things like building roads, schools or hospitals that clearly had a necessary public purpose. In recent years, however, the term has been twisted to allow the government to take land from one private owner and turn it over to another, usually a wealthy and politically connected developer. The required "public purpose" is usually justified by claiming that the new development will generate more taxes and jobs. Unfortunately, this entire process has led to widespread abuse.
Nearly a year ago, The Institute For justice, a Washington , D.C. think tank released a report entitled "Building Empires, Destroying Homes: Eminent Domain Abuse in New York. That report concluded: "It is no secret that things are bad in New York. In nearly every respect, eminent domain law is written to favor the very entities that engage in eminent domain abuse…".
Since that report, things have gotten worse, not better, Only a few months ago, New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals ruled against small private property owners and in favor of wealthy developers when it upheld the actions of Columbia University and the New York State Economic Development Corporation in condemning large tracts of productive land in the Manhattanville neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan.
Current New York law aids and abets wealthy private developers as they manipulate the eminent domain process for their own economic benefit at the same time destroying the livelihoods and lives of small business people, seniors and families that have the misfortune to be in their way. Often those who suffer at the hands of eminent domain are poor, minority and elderly, in other words, those most vulnerable and least able to protect their own rights.
Worse yet, time and again these wealthy developers do little more than sell their government enablers a "bill of goods". Witness New London Connecticut, birthplace of the Kelo case, the Supreme Court decision which upheld the twisted definition of "public purpose". Based on the promises of a large manufacturer in New London that it would greatly expand its operations (and thereby the tax base) the City of New London wiped Mrs. Kelo's home and, indeed, her entire neighborhood off the map. Four years later, not only has the promised development not taken place, but the manufacturer in question has announced its plans to close even its existing operations and will be leaving New London altogether. Meantime, a once thriving residential neighborhood is now a flat, empty stretch of weed filled lots.
With the legislation now before it, the Westchester County Legislature has the opportunity to prevent this kind of waste and injustice in the future. There is no time to waste in reining in the abuse of eminent domain.
John Murtagh is Yonkers City Council Minority Leader representing the 5th District.