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blight and eminent domain

The project area for the New Rochelle site was designated as "blighted" by the Town of New Rochelle for the purpose of commercial redevelopment (initially with the idea of bringing in IKEA). Definitions for blight, established by various legal cases, are often fairly general and broad-scoped. The Constitution of the State of New York, Article XVIII, Section 3 uses the precedent established by Yonkers v. Morris to define blight as follows (Yonkers Community Development Agency v. Morris (1975) 37 NY2d 478):

* Factors to be considered in determining if area is "blighted" and thus subject to urban renewal condemnation include such diverse matters as irregularity of the plots, inadequacy of the streets, diversity of land ownership making assemblage of property difficult, incompatibility of existing mixture of residential and industrial property, overcrowding, incidence of crime, lack of sanitation, drain areas makes on municipal services, fire hazards, traffic congestion and pollution.

* For an area to be termed "blighted" and thus subject to urban renewal condemnation, degree of deterioration or precise percentage of obsolescence or mathematical measurement of other factors do not have to be arrived at with precision, since combination and effects of such things are highly variable.

* The term "blighted area" for purposes of urban renewal condemnation, encompasses areas in process of deterioration or threatened with it as well as one already rendered useless and may include vacant land and air rights.

The Urban Renewal Law from the New York General Municipal Law Section 505defines a "substandard or insanitary area" as:1

* Interchangeable with a slum, blighted, or deteriorated or deteriorating area, or an area which has a blighting influence on the surrounding area, whether residential, non-residential, commercial, industrial, vacant, or land in highways, railway and subway tracks, bridge and tunnel approaches and entrances, or other similar facilities, over which air rights and easements or other rights of user necessary for the use and development of such air rights, to be developed as air rights sites for the elimination of the blighting influence, or any combination thereof and may include land, buildings or improvements, or air rights and concominant easements or other rights of user necessary for the use and development of such air rights, not in themselves substandard or insanitary, the inclusion of which is deemed necessary for the effective undertaking of one or more urban renewal programs.

The power of eminent domain is often used by cities in connection with blighted areas and to accomplish their plans for urban renewal projects. New Rochelle has not yet attempted to use eminent domain in the "blighted" area, but the Constitution of New York, Article XVIII, Section 2 sets precedents that give a city the background on which to pursue such action, should they decide to do so. The Constitution approaches the right of eminent domain, generally, with the following statements:

* Where land is found to be substandard, its taking for urban renewal is for a public purpose....Summary judgement in urban renewal condemnation case should be awarded to urban renewal agency if, in the first instance, it presents to the court an adequate basis upon which it concluded that land was substandard, and if landowners then cannot show the agency's determination is without foundation. (Yonkers Community Development Agency v Morris (1975) 37 NY2d 478.)

* Condemnation to eliminate areas of intangible physical blight, that is, areas which tend to create slums or which tend to impair or arrest sound growth of the city, is a public purpose, redevelopment may properly be accomplished by private person, and area condemned may thereafter be properly used for nonresidential purposes, and power thus exercised comes within provisions of Section 1 of Article XVIII of Constitution of State of New York even though area is not slum with tangible physical blight. (Cannata v New York (1961, 2d Dept) 14 AD2d, 221 NYS2d 457.)

* The adoption of this article has not resulted in any express modification of the view that the power of eminent domain is inherent in the State, or that the only limitation upon exercise of this power is that the taking must be for the use in fact public, for compensation, and pursuant to due process of law. (Cannata v New York (1961, 2d Dept) 14 AD2d, 221 NYS2d 457.)

As mandated by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendemnts of the United States Constitution, the Town of New Rochelle would need to prove that the eminent domain is being used for a public purpose and, if this can proved, than they would need to offer the land owners "just compensation" for the properties. The definition of public purpose, however, is often open to interpretation. In the current situation, New Rochelle wants to redevelop the study area into a commercial site in order to increase sales tax revenues for the city. The courts have often found in favor of a town that uses eminent domain and redevelopment plans to facilitate economic stability.2 Furthermore, the New York State Constitution, Article XVIII, Section 1, also states that it is acceptable, and even necessary, for a municipality to use private entities in order to accomplish redevelopment goals:

* Rehabilitation of substandard areas is to be a function of private enterprise aided by the government and it is not a function of government as is low-rent housing for persons of low income. (Dorsey v Stuyvesant Town Corp. (1949) 299 NY 512.)

* The very purpose of urban renewal subsidies is to attract new or existing sponsors to undertake land clearing, the construction and other commitments the community desires of them, where cost of acquiring land privately, on a piece by piece basis, would be sufficiently expensive or difficult to deter private entities. (Yonkers Community Development v Morris (1975) 37 NY2d 478.)

* Article XVIII, known as the Housing Article, authorizes the legislature in this section to provide as it may prescribe for low-rent housing or rehabilitation of substandard areas or both, and in Article XVIII, Section 2, in aid of its purposes, to authorize cities to guarantee indebtedness or authorize tax exemptions. (Davidson v Elmira (1943) 180 Misc 1052.)


The blight condemnation for the study area is currently being challenged-the residents and businesses that occupy the area do not believe that their neighborhood is substandard or insanitary. Under some definitions of blight, however, our site could qualify-the irregularity of lots, inadequacy of streets, diversity of land ownership with residential mixing with industrial, pollution all fall under the definition of blight and the study area has some of these characteristics. Furthermore, courts have established that all the properties in an urban renewal site need not be substandard in order for the site to be considered blighted. (Courtesy Sandwich Shop, Inc. v. Port of New York Authority.) 3

If New Rochelle does insist on maintaining the blight condemnation for the study area, it is advisable that they implement new redevelopment plans in a reasonable amount of time (in light of IKEA's withdrawal). Sites that have been condemned and then are not redeveloped can decline to conditions that are worse than when the site was initially condemned due to the decrease in property values and the fact that building permits or home improvement loans will be denied to the residents of the area.4

1 This is the definition used in the study that determined the study area as "blighted".
2 Michael D. Zarin, Public Purpose Doctrine in Public/Private Eminent Domain Transactions, p. 7.
3 Zarin, p. 12.
4 Ibid., p. 21.