The following commentary written by Ross Sandler is from the December 2009 issue of CityLand.
Empire State Development gets an earful on public hearings
In a blistering opinion, the First Department overturned Empire State Development Corporation's decision to use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University. The judges' anger at Empire State was palpable as they verbally destroyed the factual findings by which Empire State justified assisting Columbia's expansion plans. As a practical matter the decision only affects a few holdout properties, since Columbia controls most of the buildings in the designated expansion area. There is still the possibility of reversal by the Court of Appeals, but as judicial statement, the opinion sends a powerful message of encouragement to the communities fighting similar civic and economic developments in their neighborhoods.
The judges forcefully criticized Empire State for simultaneously stonewalling court orders to produce documents while, at the same time, closing the hearing record. This prevented the opposition from including contrary facts in the administrative record. The court's opinion on the importance of the public hearing brought back a personal memory for me.
In the early 1980s I was asked to be the hearing officer for an Urban Development Corporation project located on Roosevelt Island. The project was limited and seemed worthy. On the night of the hearing, however, a large turnout of persons consistently spoke against the project. The hearing took place in a church basement and I sat in the front at a desk as the hearing officer. At the conclusion of each speaker's statement I thanked the speaker and said, "Your views will be taken into consideration." I thought such a neutral statement was both courteous and appropriate.
After I had said the "your views will be taken into consideration" a number of times, the UDC lawyer watching over the hearing, came up behind me and whispered. "Please do not say 'your views will be taken into consideration.' You are going beyond your authority."
I don't have a personal view of the Columbia plan, but it is certainly a nice feeling to have a court stand up and say that the public hearings really do mean that "your views will be taken into consideration."
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