Landowner fears losing nest egg to eminent domain: (Westchester NY) Journal News, 10/19/05

By Brian J Howard

Helen Christian always dreamed that the property she and her husband bought when they were first married might be a nest egg she could cash in at retirement.

But waterfront redevelopment plans and the specter of eminent domain have the Peekskill native worried about losing the half-acre lot at Requa and South streets she held onto for nearly 50 years.

"I saved and sacrificed because that was going to be my 401(k)," said Christian, 70. "It hurts because I don't feel that they should have the right to take it away from me and destroy my dream."

Ginsburg Development of Hawthorne has been negotiating to acquire a number of residential and commercial properties on the waterfront and has reached deals with several owners.

But at a public meeting last month, Mayor John Testa said that while the city had no intention of using its authority to take private property, that option wouldn't be ruled out. That left Christian, who lives in Somers, worried because she knew Ginsburg eyed her land for a 500-car garage.

The property once housed an apartment building that was razed by the city after a fire in 1968. The lot has been vacant ever since.

Steven O'Brien, Ginsburg's director of development, said the company was committed to negotiating amicably with any property owner displaced by the project.

"It's not a zero-sum game," O'Brien said. "It's one of those opportunities where both sides can be winners and both sides can feel they were treated fairly."

Christian says she is no opportunist. And she does not want to stand in the way of progress. She only wants a fair deal, she said.

When the two sides met last spring, her attorney balked at a city appraisal that valued the property at $120,000. She said if Ginsburg built condos there, it would sell for many times that.

O'Brien indicated he would be reaching out to Christian soon. He acknowledged the heightened sensitivity surrounding eminent domain, particularly since the U.S. Supreme Court in June affirmed local governments' right to take properties for redevelopment.

Both Ginsburg and the city say it is a tool that should remain available to municipalities.

Sherwood Martinelli of Requa Street, a self-described activist who has been advising Christian, called that a "veiled threat."

"I'm a Midwestern farm boy," he said. "Property to me is almost sacred. I've watched farmers pushed off their lands by means almost (as) deplorable as eminent domain."

Ironically, a South Street building the mayor's family owned for three generations was condemned when Washington Street was extended. Testa said the boyhood experience sensitized him to the issue.

"It wasn't taking anyone's homes away," he said, "but it was taking a piece of family history away, which obviously I can relate to."

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