Two Landowners, Two Lawsuits Fight Eminent Domain in M'ville

Manhattanville’s Tuck-It-Away Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam and Parminder Singh filed separate lawsuits on Wednesday against the Empire State Development Corporationto challenge the state’s approval of using eminent domain to seize their properties to make room for Columbia’s campus expansion.

The suits were substantially similar, and emerged after extensive collaboration between the two parties. The two lawsuits were filed separately with the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, since they involve different properties.

“This battle has been brewing for five years,” said Norman Siegel, the attorney for Sprayregen. “Time and again New York State, the Empire State Development Corporation, and Columbia had the opportunity to amiably resolve this controversy, but have chosen not to. So the battle lines have been drawn.”

Sprayregen and the Singhs are the only landowners in the campus expansion site who have refused to sell their land to Columbia. With eminent domain, ESDC would seize their properties in exchange for market-rate compensation, and then transfer ownership to the University.

The invocation of eminent domain is contingent upon the designation of an area as “blighted,” a finding that the ESDC released in July of last summer. Some locals have loudly challenged that judgement, arguing that any ostensible blight in Manhattanville is on Columbia-owned properties.

The Sprayregen suit challenges the approval of eminent domain on 13 counts, while the Singh suit contains 10 counts. The three additional counts in the Sprayregen suit stem from actions Sprayregen and Siegel have taken independently, including requests for documents relating to the expansion and to eminent domain, which they say have gone unfulfilled.

Despite these differences, both suits “say no to the use of eminent domain and no to Manhattanville being classified as a blighted neighborhood,” Siegel said.

Specifically, the Sprayregen suit challenges eminent domain on several bases: that the ESDC found “in bad faith, without substantial evidence and even without rational basis that the project area is blighted,” that the expansion does not constitute a “civic project”—as eminent domain law requires—and that it “lacks a valid public use, benefit or public purpose ... because the condemnation is not necessary and in excess of any public purpose.”

The suit also alleges that the ESDC “closed its hearing record while still withholding records to which Petitioners had a legal right.” This clause is not included in the Singh suit, as it was Sprayregen and Siegel who requested the records in question.

David Smith, the attorney for the Singh family, emphasized that the separate filings were purely for logistical reasons, and not due to any ideological difference between the landowners. Both Sprayregen and the Singh family had indicated, shortly after the ESDC voted to approve eminent domain on Dec. 18, that they would challenge the invocation of eminent domain in court.

“There’s nothing in our case that’s any different than what’s in the Sprayregen case, except they have three more causes of action,” Smith said, adding that the court could choose to hear both cases simultaneously.

“We stand foursquare with Tuck-It-Away,” Smith said. “I am strongly supportive of Norman Siegel and their position, and we’ve cooperated throughout this entire endeavor and will continue to do so.”

ESDC spokesperson Lisa Willner declined to comment, citing the ESDC’s policy against speaking about pending litigation.

Columbia officials also chose not to offer a statement. Brian Connolly, a University spokesperson, explained in an e-mail, “We are not a party to this new litigation and do not have comment.”

Cases involving eminent domain procedure law are unique in that, under New York state law, they are filed straight to appellate court rather than for a traditional trial court hearing.

Shortly after the Dec. 18 vote, Walter South, an urban planner and former member of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, expressed optimism about the prospects for such a suit.

“I think there’s a very good chance, if this thing does go to the Supreme Court, that the Supreme Court is going to say something is seriously flawed here,” South said.

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