5/09/2005

Eminent domain - used carefully - can mold destiny: Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, 5/7/05

By Dick Case

The water in Ley Creek runs muddy through the Seventh North Street district these days.

In March, Bob Congel and his helpers at Pyramid Cos. unpacked their newest sheaf of renderings of a Destiny USA research and development park that would straddle Seventh North where the Thruway and I-81 intersect, a place we like to call the "Crossroads of New York State."

The cost: billions.

This newest entry to the Pyramid wish list would turn a 325-acre marsh into the cross patch of New York state; the 29 business owners on the half of the site south of Seventh North aren't happy with the notion Pyramid will ask OCIDA (the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency) - a public benefit corporation controlled by the county Legislature - to use its power of eminent domain to condemn their property and turn it over to the Congel partners.

This is going down hard, as we heard at a meeting of the agency this week, when some of the owners spoke. Later, they said they'd fight the idea of a public authority taking private land and giving it a private developer.

They weren't thrilled to hear Robert Baldwin, the OCIDA chairman, say out loud that board members "didn't have to be here." He cautioned against early panic for a project that has many approvals to clear.

The owners aren't napping. They've founded a "Stop OCIDA" coalition, with posters, signs, buttons and a Web site (stopocida.com).

Meanwhile, on the north side of the road, where two county agencies have trash and sewage operations, Pyramid faces other challenges on what used to be a landfill. The developer looks to this land to hold Phases I and II of the project; number three's the small industrial park to the south.

The Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency - our trash busters - has a transfer station on the land I'm told it's not anxious to move. Rather, director Tom Rhoads told me in March, the agency hopes its nine-acre operation could become part of a research park.

At the same time, the county Water Environmental Protection Department, the engineers who look after our sanitary needs, has a pumping station on the lot that can't be relocated.

Aside from the concerns about the development agency and Pyramid wanting the businesses to lie down and play dead, the owners tell me they're not comforted by what they heard from County Executive Nick Pirro.

I paraphrase: I'm not going to turn Onondaga into another Erie County, a reference to the financial woes of the Buffalo area. They don't think Nick's using his critical powers to evaluate a Pyramid proposal that looks, right now, like all of the other Pyramid proposals: lovely gift-wrapping with no gift inside.

There's another issue here, and it's bigger than Seventh North: defining eminent domain as a tool for the public's "health, safety and welfare." As we speak, the concept is being tested before the U.S. Supreme Court in a Connecticut case that also involves a public agency condemning private property for a private developer.

Just now, we don't have a choice except to trust that members of that industrial agency board - all appointed by the Legislature - will do what's best for all of us, not just Congel Inc. Public benefit corporations such as this one were created by the state in 1970 to assist established businesses and help new ones relocate to places like Onondaga County.

"Assist established businesses" means both The Pyramid Cos. and the 29 entrepreneurs south of Seventh North.

One thing is clear this week: The project is not the done deal Pyramid suggested in March. Educated guesses suggest OCIDA will end up telling the developer it will withhold the eminent domain favor until the board sees Phases I and II rising. Maybe even the Other Destiny: the entertainment and retail complex promised for old Oil City.

That's the kind of "irresistible power" of true destiny.


Syracuse Post-Standard: www.syracuse.com