The potential use of eminent domain is looming large over the 250 businesses in Willets Point, and legal experts say the concerned owners face an uphill battle if the city should decide to utilize the controversial practice.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg specifically said last week that the city would not hesitate to use eminent domain, which allows the government to forcibly condemn property to advance development, if it deemed it necessary to go forward with a proposed $1.5 billion redevelopment of the 13-square block site in northern Queens.
The 60-acres that make up Willets Point, known as the Iron Triangle, has long been an eyesore for city officials. The area lacks several elements of fundamental infrastructure, including a sewage and drainage system, paved roads and street lights. The Iron Triangle also boasts a high water table, which the city said has allowed years of toxic materials produced by auto-related businesses based in the area to spread easily whenever it rains, creating widespread contamination.
New York state eminent domain law says property cannot be taken solely for economic development. However, according to attorney Lisa Bova-Hiatt of the city Law Department, the law contains a stipulation that if an area is considered a public blight, an exception can be made and a municipality can take the land - a stipulation she said would be utilized by the city if it chooses to use eminent domain at Willets Point.
Manhattan-based attorney Robert Goldstein, who has represented eminent domain cases for nearly 60 years with his firm Goldstein, Goldstein, Rikon and Gottlieb, said the city's power is more far-reaching than Bova-Hiatt says.
"The reality is when a public body empowered with the power of condemnation makes a factual determination and decides as a matter of policy that this is what they want to do, the courts will not second guess them," Goldstein said.
Business owners argue that they have been the victims of far-reaching neglect on the part of the city, and with infrastructure improvements the area would flourish.
"It's been purposefully neglected by the city," said Anthony Fodera, president of Fodera Foods. "They've caused the blight and neglect."
Business owners in the area are reviewing their legal options, but Goldstein said they need not look further than the city's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, where eminent domain was recently used to take property despite several lawsuits filed by area residents.
"If you depend on the courts, you're not going to win," he said. "If they're going to win, they're going to win in the court of public opinion."
Winning the support of public officials could be a tough sell, however. Though several elected officials have publicly called for the fair treatment of business owners, support for redevelopment is nearly unanimous and even the most adamant advocate for the businesses, City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst), refuses to take eminent domain off the table.
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