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December 04, 2009 3:04 PM Columbia University Cannot Use Eminent Domain

By Daniel Luzer

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A New York State appeals court yesterday said Columbia University cannot use eminent domain to take over land to build a new campus. According to an article about the decision in the New York Times:

In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.
The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the “scheme was hatched,” using terms like “sophistry” and “idiocy” in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.

Since 2003 Columbia University has purchased 17 acres in West Harlem’s old Manhattanvilte manufacturing area with the attention of converting the area for the school’s use. Columbia already owns most of the property but the court case centered on whether Columbia can seize property from owners who decline to sell out to the school.

Columbia’s expansion plan, which sparked protests at the school, was somewhat controversial. Columbia was planning to use eminent domain to obtain property from those who refused to sell.

This was a puzzling use of eminent domain since the term is usually understood to mean the power of the state to take private property for public use. Columbia is a private university and, frankly, the idea that there might be any public good to this project (or any good to anything other than Columbia University) was debatable. Columbia already owns 61 of the 67 buildings in the Manhattanvilte manufacturing area and could just build around the holdouts, but the school plans to appeal this latest decision.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer