New York Court of Appeals Upholds Atlantic Yards Condemnations

The New York Court of Appeals has issued its opinion in Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Corporation, an important property rights case. The 6-1 decision upholds the condemnation of numerous properties in Atlantic Yards project area in Brooklyn for the purpose of transferring them to powerful developer Bruce Ratner, who plans to use most of the land to build a new stadium for the New Jersey Nets and to construct “luxury” housing. This outcome is not surprising. As I explained in this post, where I predicted the result, New York courts are among the most hostile to property rights of any in the country. New York is also one of only seven states that hasn’t enacted eminent domain reform of any kind since the federal Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 decision upholding “economic development” condemnations in Kelo v. City of New London.

Significantly the Court concluded that the property in question could be condemned because it is “blighted” and blight alleviation is a “public use” recognized by the New York Constitution, thanks to a constitutional amendment allowing the condemnation of slum areas. This despite the fact that it is very far from being a slum of any kind, and much of it is actually middle or lower middle class housing. Indeed, the opinion itself notes (pg. 14) that the Atlantic Yards area “do[e]s not begin to approach in severity the dire circumstances of urban slum dwelling” that led to the enactment of the blight amendment. To get around this problem, the Court held that “blight” alleviation is not limited to “’slums’ as that term was formerly applied, and that, among other things, economic underdevelopment and stagnation are also threats to the public sufficient to make their removal cognizable as a public purpose” (pp. 15-16, quoting a 1975 decision).

Obviously, virtually any area occasionally suffers from “economic underdevelopment” or “stagnation” and therefore could potentially be condemned under this rationale. Moreover, even under this expansive definition of blight, the decision states that courts can only strike down a condemnation if “there is no room for reasonable difference of opinion as to whether an area is blighted.” With respect to any neighborhood, there is nearly always “room for reasonable difference of opinion” as to whether the area is “underdeveloped” relative to some possible alternative uses of the land in question. Defining blight this broadly and then deferring to the government’s determination of whether such “blight” actually exists effectively reads the public use restriction out of the state constitution. I highly doubt that New York state constitutional amendment allowing condemnation of “substandard and insanitary areas” (Article XVIII, Section 1 here) would have passed had it been understood to mean that virtually any area could be declared blighted and condemned. As with most other blight condemnation laws, the amendment was sold to the public as a tool for eliminating “slums” (a point the majority concedes).

Allowing government agencies to declare virtually any area “blighted” and then condemn it at will is an abdication of judicial responsibility to protect constitutional property rights. As Judge Smith points out in his dissent:

The whole point of the public use limitation is to prevent takings even when a state agency deems them desirable. To let the agency itself determine when the public use requirement is satisfied is to make the agency a judge in its own cause. I think that it is we who should perform the role of judges, and that we should do so by deciding that the proposed taking in this case is not for public use.

Unfortunately, New York is not the only state that has come to define “blight” so broadly that virtually any property could be condemned. The same pattern is evident in numerous other states, including many that claim to have banned “economic development” takings since Kelo.

The case is also significant because it is the first major state supreme court defeat for property rights on a public use issue since Kelo. Over the last 10 years, the tide had been going the other way, with more and more state high courts applying restrictive definitions of “public use” and forbidding economic development takings of the kind upheld in Kelo, including important decisions in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Michigan, among others. Hopefully, Goldstein will not be the start of a counterrevolution.

UPDATE: I addressed the earlier federal litigation on this taking in this 2008 post, where I noted that the Second Circuit’s decision upholding the condemnation under the federal Constitution was probably required by Kelo, and also discussed some of the policy flaws with the Atlantic Yards project.

UPDATE #2: I have corrected a mistake in Judge Smith’s title (which is indeed, “Judge” and not “Justice,” as I originally stated). Just as New York confusingly refers to its supreme court as the Court of Appeals, while using the term “supreme court” for its trial courts, it also denies its high court judges the title used in most other states. In addition to issuing dubious property rights decisions, New York courts also have terrible nomenclature.