By Carol W. LaGrasse
Before my father died in 1970, he and my oldest brother used to go to the nearby community of Willets Point in Queens County for auto parts. Even then, this mecca for auto repairs, refinishing, and every imaginable service related to automotive maintenance was the subject of aggressive neglect by the City of New York, recalled my brother this Christmas. Then, the streets were in bad shape. Now, traversing the streets over potholes, broad depressions, ridges, and just plain bare, packed crushed remains of something that once could have been pavement takes masterly caution. The businesses are flooded during ordinary rainstorms because of the missing and unmaintained, non-functioning sewers. Yet the vehicles of people seeking automotive services pack the streets at the uninterrupted shops.
The City of New York brought an eminent domain action last year against Willets Point, deeming it unworthy of its location near the Mets' Citi Field stadium, and announcing its intention to redevelop the area for finer occupants. However, questions of justice arise: Can the court allow a municipality to cause aspects of a neighborhood to deteriorate by withholding essential municipal services and then condemn the area on the basis of deterioration? And, considering the vagueness of the City's plans, can the court allow a municipality to condemn private property to transfer it to as yet undetermined future owners for undetermined purposes? These questions applying to the Constitution's "public use" clause for eminent domain have never been settled by either New York's or the nation's highest court.
On January 26, a team of top attorneys submitted a friend of the court brief in the eminent domain appeal, known as Serrone v. City of New York, on behalf of the Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc., to support the Willets Point plaintiffs by raising such constitutional questions. Right now, little constraint exists for the definition of the "public use" for eminent domain for urban redevelopment. Our goal is for the court to impose clear boundaries on this imposition of eminent domain. Partner David Hawkins and condemnation expert Jeremy Marwell of Vinson & Elkins, L.L.C., of Washington, D.C., and co-counsel John Marwell of Shamberg Marwell and Hollis, P.C., of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., prepared the brief, which was submitted to the Appellate Division, Second Department, of New York State's Supreme Court.
The submission of this amicus brief is part of PRFA's long-time
effort on behalf of communities facing unconstitutional eminent
domain, including our amicus briefs in the notorious 2005 U.S.
Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London (where the land where
the neighborhood was demolished now sits vacant and is used as
a city dump) and our testimony over many years before Senate and
Assembly committees of the New York State Legislature.