The Continuing Columbia Eminent Domain Controversy:

Columbia student Evan Daar has an interesting article about the ongoing controversy surrounding Columbia's efforts to use the threat of eminent domain to condemn property it covets in New York City's Manhattanville area, which is mostly occupied by poor and lower middle class African-Americans. Daar notes that Columbia's plans have attracted protest from across the political spectrum. In my view, rightly so. While the university has backed off its initial threats to have the state condemn residential property, it is still threatening to use eminent domain to condemn commercial property in the area if the owners won't sell "voluntarily" (i.e. - under the threat of condemnation proceedings should they refuse Columbia's purchase offers).

I blogged extensively about this controversy in previous posts (see here and here). In this post, I gave some more general reasons why universities should not be allowed to use eminent domain to acquire property.

Mr. Liberal:

I gave some more general reasons why universities should not be allowed to use eminent domain to acquire property.

Just to be unambiguous, I take it you would concede that it is acceptable to use eminent domain for public universities. Your issue is only with eminent for private universities, correct?
2.12.2008 2:22am
Cornellian (mail):
Just to be unambiguous, I take it you would concede that it is acceptable to use eminent domain for public universities. Your issue is only with eminent for private universities, correct?

I think he's saying it's unacceptable in either case, but also unconstitutional in the case of a private university.
2.12.2008 3:00am
Creating laws of their own.

Clowns in certain DC building.

How long The Pople will put up with it?
2.12.2008 7:58am
Creating laws of their own.

Clowns in certain DC building.

How long The People will put up with it?
2.12.2008 7:59am
Temp Guest (mail):
Back in the early 1970s The University of Pennsylvania used this same kind of thuggery to expropriate over ten city blocks of small business and residential property for a project called superblock. Just before that a conspiracy between the University and supporters in city and state government allowed the members of a UP fraternity to walk away scot free from the brutal beating and gang rape of an underage local girl.

Fundamentally, the same processes were at work -- collusion among elites to deprive lesser status citizens of life and property. Almost invariably where you find eminent domain used to steal property, you will find other, simialr thefts of other basic rights.
2.12.2008 8:12am
TN DC Atty (mail):
Just to be unambiguous, I take it you would concede that it is acceptable to use eminent domain for public universities.

Similarly, it would be constitutionally acceptable for a city government to use eminent domain to:

try to "revitalize" a downtown with a city-run convention center;

launch needless expansions of government buildings to create windfalls for the construction industry; or

make effective wealth transfers to the already-wealthy by building them nice recreational facilities near their neighborhoods.
2.12.2008 9:25am
The difficulty here is that an educational institution is a traditional public use.

The Supreme Court had tried to duck identifying and distinguishing traditional state functions as being specially privileged in its commerce jurisprudence, and Kelo similarly ducks the matter in eminent domain cases. A principled objection to Kelo requires identifying a "public use" based on something other than the objector's personal ideology. If the constitution is not to be used as an extra-political club by which judges can limit public uses that a judge happens to believe the state shouldn't be doing as a matter of mere personal belief, then there have to be neutral standards by which the term "public" use has to be defined. At the very least well-established traditional public uses have to be permitted.

And education is a traditional public use.
2.12.2008 10:32am
I personally don't find myself particularly moved by arguments that do little more than call other people whose practices one disagrees with epithets like "thieves" etc. If there is a rational, considered argument against a practice, presumably it can be articulated. If one is unable to articulate anything except epithets, perhaps it is because one doesn't have anything better to say.

I use such epithets in satire -- from time to time I call the ACLU "religious fundamentalists" and the like, for effect, when I see them earnestly attempting to argue that morality is a constitutionally mandated basis for public policy whenever they find themselves outvoted by views they find immoral. I happen to agree that morality can be a basis for morality. What I disagree with is the idea that judges know morality any better than voters or legislators. So I also disagree with the ACLU's practice of arguing that morality is a constitutionally prohibited basis for public policy whenever they find themselves outvoted by views of morality they disagree with.
2.12.2008 10:43am
I happen to agree that morality can be a basis for policy.
2.12.2008 10:44am
Randy R. (mail):
The connection between 'superblock' and letting a frat boy off for rape in tenuous. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the university would have let the boy off regardless of its eminent domain. I don't know the facts, but I would venture to say it's a high burden of proof to connect the two. I hardly think that the trustees sat around a table and said, we will take commercial property by eminent domain, and therefore, we will allow any kid to rape the locals.

BTW, the universities action has been, to my understanding, universally acclaimed. Instead of turning their backs on the local community, a la University of Chicago, they became a part of the community, and now that area is thriving. If there are people who don't like it, I haven't heard from any, but I would be interested to see the reaction.
2.12.2008 11:17am
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
Something you might be missing here is the tax benefits of a sale under threat of condemnation. Section 1033 of the code allows a property owner to roll over sale proceeds (i.e., defer the tax on profits) from the condemnation of property or the sale under threat of condemnation. Many sales to a large aggregator like Columbia have been made under a wink-wink "threat of condemnation" in order to deliver valuable tax benefits to the sellers.

Of course, if the "threat" is clearly a sham, the sellers get no benefit. Columbia may have agreed to help the sellers secure the benefits of Section 1033. I have heard of this where you have public entity, big buyer, &multiple sellers working on a large project. This may be why Columbia persists in sounding scary and imperial, to hold up its end of the understanding.

I don't know anything personally about the case, but I would be surprised if Columbia's counsel and seller's counsel had not considered this.
2.12.2008 12:20pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
No mention of Sprayregen?
2.12.2008 12:35pm
Adam J:
Mr. Liberal- how is it unambigious that public universities should be free to use eminent domain? There may be specific situations which call for it, but generally a public university would be able to find acceptable parcels of land on the open market just fine. It is hardly the same as the state building a highway- there the threat of holdouts and the project need for specific land create unique and strong justifications for the state's use of eminent domain. Unfortunately, the state doesn't apparently ever have to justify eminent domain's use- just make a claim that the use of eminent domain somehow is of public benefit. Of course, apparently you think the state be allowed to use eminent domain simply because it might save taxpayers a few bucks at some homeowners expense.
2.12.2008 1:22pm
Temp Guest (mail):
Randy R:

The thousands of persons dispossesed by UPenn are no longer there to complain. The University ethnically cleansed the area. If you do not think that UPenn imposed a great deal of misery on these people go back and do a little reading in the Philadelphia Inquirer circa 1969 through 1975.

The University, its trustees, administration and alumni at the time had a contempt for the communities surrounding the campus that was palpable. I spent a semester at the University as a grad student in mathematics during that time period and observed this contempt frequently. The UPenn student newspaper did several exposes of how UPenn alumni in city and state government conspired with the UPenn administration and trustees to forward the superblock theft and protect the rapist frat boys from any criminal charges for a beating and rape that left a high school girl on the edge of death.

I'm quite conservative and think left-wing theories of conspiracy are generally bunk but my observations of how UPenn operated in Philadelphia in these two cases and others suggest that occassionally elites do gang up to rob the poor and defenceless of property, protection of the law, and other basic rights. After all, if you can use your power to steal someone's property with impunity why would you hesitate to use that same power to protect your son when he rapes or kills someone?

I'd be interested if any readers resident in Philadelphia during the period in question would care to confirm or deny my assertions.
2.12.2008 1:22pm
gasman (mail):
Sounds like extortion and it goes like this:
If you don't like the price we've offered, which by your failure to sell is evident, then we'll tie you and your property up in court, rendering it valueless because you won't be able to sell to anyone during the proceedings. When it's all done there you will possibly get less than we are offering now; while you could appeal, you won't have the funds to pursue it.
2.12.2008 1:59pm
Gideon Kanner (mail):
Guy in the veal calf office:

Whoa! Not so fast. The Internal Revenue Code you speak of applies to all involuntary convesions, not just conemenation proceeds. The thery is that when a proprty owner experiences an involuntary conversion of his property into cash (such as, most commonly, a fire for whicvh he receives an insurance payoff, or some other casualty) it would be unfair for the government to pile on and demand capital gains taxes when the poor bastard is struggling to replace his home or business (for which, as you may recall, he got incomplete "just" compensation). So the code gives him 18 months (as I recall) to replace the lost property with a like property, and if he does so, his obligation to pay capirtal gains taxes is deferred until he sells the replacement property.

I wouldn't call that a "benefit." It is rather the prevention of government-inflicted unfairness. Note that the capital gain taxes are NOT forgiven -- they are deferred. But any interest the condemnor pays is treated as ordinary income and is subject to immediate taxation.
2.12.2008 2:12pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
University communities generally consider themselves hugely superior to the rest of society. Nothing should be denied the U, especially if it's only the unwashed getting it in the neck.
This is also part of their view of public policy outside their own immediate property grabs. Seen green policy, or low-income housing in blue-collar areas (Yonkers).

BTW, it's more than possible to make a compelling case based on facts and still call the bastards "thieves". And once one presumes all present understand the basic facts, making the case over and over again is unnecessary, while referring to "thieves" is perfectly justified.
2.12.2008 3:04pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Prof. Somin:

Columbia's proposed expansion area is not "mostly occupied by poor and lower middle class African-Americans." It is mostly occupied by auto body shops, warehouses, gas stations, parking lots, fast food outlets and other light commercial uses. There is also a public bus depot and about five small apartment buildings. It is true that most residents of the apartment buildings (which take up less than 10% of the land) are minority members, but your suggestion that the area is a residential enclave is quite false.
2.12.2008 3:28pm
Randy R. (mail):
Temp Guest: Thanks for the info. I had a friend who studied Urban Studies at Penn in the late 80s, and he had only good things to say about what they did there. Plus, I've read some articles that uphold Penn as a model for urban development, and for town/gown relations.

So I'm surprised -- or maybe not so surprised -- to hear that there is another side to the story. So thanks for the sobering facts.

But I think that you have proved my other point, that regardless of the e. domain issue, the university would have let the frat boy off for rape. Perhaps there is a connection -- I would say there isn't -- but according to you, Penn had contempt for the locals even before they took over property. Nonetheless, I see your point that there is a connection to lack of respect for property and people goes hand in hand.
2.12.2008 4:09pm
nicks (mail):
I am the largest private property owner fighting Columbia's abusive threats of the use of eminent domain in their continuing attempt to take full control of Manhattanville in West Harlem. Columbia is attempting to rent the police powers of the state to accomplish something they and the free meket cannot do. Shame on bollinger who has also refused to even meet with me. This expansion us nothing more than a naked land grab at its worst. Along with my attorney Norman Siege I will continue to fight with everything I got!
2.12.2008 6:10pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):

Columbia has not refused to meet with you. There is no reason you should be able to meet directly with the president about this. People with greivances against the university should expect to deal with the administrators in charge of the relevant programs and not the president. If you don't want to negotiate with other administrators then that's up to you, but it's your decision and not the university's.

And for the benefit of readers who don't know this, I note your stated intention to raze your existing storage facilities if you don't lose them to eminent domain and replace them with large-scale housing developments. That might or might not be a better outcome than the one Columbia wants, but I think VC readers should understand your motivations when they consider your comment.
2.12.2008 6:43pm
nicks (mail):
to the writer who commented on my writing, I will ignore your first comment for the time being and examine ypr second. You are either missing or intentionally ignoring one crucial difference between columbias plans and whatever mine are, which by the way are not nearly so simplistic as you claim, and the diference is I OWN MY property. Columbia does not!
2.12.2008 6:49pm
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
Well, I guess that in this case the tax benefits afforded sales under threat of condemnation are not the motivating factor in Columbia's bluster.

And why does Nick's project, whatever it may be, affect his motivation in a way that makes his case less compelling?
2.12.2008 7:22pm
If a university president can meet with the football boosters and do other fund raising, then surely he can meet with the person whose land he hopes to take by force.

So Nick plans to build a very profitable enterprise on the land he owns but Columbia wants? So what? That's the definition of property. Columbia needs to offer him enough money that it's offer is better than the risky development plan he has. There's no reason that Columbia shouldn't cough up the money.
2.12.2008 7:35pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
nicks --

I did not comment on your writing. I commented about what you said and not how you said it. Perhaps you misunderstood my point.

I realize that you own the land and that Columbia doesn't. We all understand that; after all, it is the essence of the controversy. My point was simply that you are not one of the "poor and lower middle class" neighborhood residents Prof. Somin described in his post. By most standards you are wealthy. (You also don't live in the neighborhood, but that's beside the point since you have business properties there.) You can afford to fight Columbia and have publicly pledged to do so all the way to the Supreme Court. There is every reason to believe you have the means to do so.

My point is not that these facts mean you should lose. But Prof. Somin gave readers the impression that the properties Columbia wants are owned by people of more modest means. He presumably said this because he considered the relative positions of the parties relevant to the discussion. I agree that it is relevant, and I'm simply correcting the misimpression some readers may have gleaned from the post.
2.12.2008 7:41pm
nicks (mail):
there is also so much going on on this fight besides the abusive use of power to gain something against the will of others. Through numerous and expensive lawsuits, we have discovered huge improprieties in the process as well. Most important is the use of the SAME outside consultant by columbia - in its application to the state - and the state itself - which hired this same firm to prepre the all important blight study!
2.12.2008 8:06pm
David W. Hess (mail):
I remember hearing a talk about the University of California attempting something similar in the Los Angeles area to gain land for a new campus. The individual targeted was a rather shrewd HAM radio operator and had a number of very large antenna arrays on the property. After their ultimatum, he sold part of the property to a developer demonstrating a fair market value ten times higher then the state was willing to pay.
2.12.2008 10:47pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
I visited this area last time in was in Manhattan.

It seems obvious that there are people who have no property interests who stand to lose a lot if Columbia gets its way.

Presumably, that doesn't count for much at VC.

Another reason I'm not a libertarian, I guess.
2.13.2008 1:07am
The fact that nicks and other Manhattanville property owners are (apparently) relatively well-off makes a potential "blight" designation even more dubious.
2.13.2008 1:17am
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
ehd2106 wrote:
The fact that nicks and other Manhattanville property owners are (apparently) relatively well-off makes a potential "blight" designation even more dubious.
That really doesn't make sense. Whether property is blighted depends upon what is there, not how wealthy the owner is. If a poor owner sells blighted land to a wealthier owner who then does nothing new with it, why should the new owner's wealth matter at all?
2.13.2008 2:59pm