Debbie Kubiak, 49, has lived in the same 1,600-square-foot house in Cheektowaga, Erie County, all her life.
That almost changed when real estate developer Dominic Piestrak came to her neighborhood. He was interested in building "Renaissance Village" — a development for upscale homes and a small shopping center.
Her neighborhood would be condemned through eminent domain — traditionally used by local governments to secure land for a new street, a bridge or other public improvement. But in a growing number of cases, the tactic is being used for commercial purposes. A local government can declare an area "blighted" and then turn the property over to a private developer for the "public good."
Construction of the proposed housing development would force Kubiak and 300 fellow neighbors out of the area.
"It's like a great big happy family more or less, and that's the reason people are fighting this so hard," Kubiak said of the neighborhood.
This week, the Cheektowaga Town Board blocked the project. Some lawmakers are trying to put a permanent stop to the use of eminent domain for anything other than public projects.
"We can't make innocent victims out of regular people," said Assembly Richard Brodsky, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County.
The lawmaker, who is also running for attorney general, has two bills before the state Legislature that he says will reform New York's eminent-domain laws so they are fair for both property owners and developers.
The reform package would set aside $100,000 for a commission to study the state's eminent-domain laws. The proposal calls for a panel composed of lawmakers and legal experts.
Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton, is holding a series of public hearings around the state to study the issue. The first one was held this week in Rochester.
"I am acutely aware of the benefits new businesses can bring to a community and that there are limited circumstances when the use of eminent domain is appropriate," Alesi said in a statement.
He stressed that seizure of property "could lead to an abuse of authority."
In July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of developers in New London, Conn., to build a shopping center along the town's waterfront, displacing property owners. Lawmakers have pointed to this case as the basis to take action in reforming eminent-domain laws.
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