By Connor Adams Sheets
Willets Point will be on the agenda during a public hearing scheduled for next week at the Flushing branch of the Queens Public Library.
The discussion is being held as part of the 60-day public comment portion of the process for the city to begin eminent domain proceedings against businesses in the 20-acre first phase of a gigantic multi-use development planned for the 62-acre site.
The hearing, scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 2 in the auditorium of the library, located at 41-17 Main St., will be the only official opportunity for Willets landowners and business owners, as well as any other concerned citizens, to voice their views about the $3 billion plans to representatives of the city Economic Development Corp. and Cornerstone Group, the firm handling relocation of area businesses.
The hearing is expected to begin with presentations by the EDC about the project’s benefits, the ways the project will conform to laws and regulations and the reasons eminent domain should be authorized against the Iron Triangle businesses.
Next will be a public comment period, during which all concerns about the project will be recorded.
Opponents of the project have plans to bring up a whole host of arguments against the project and against the eminent domain the city plans to use to make it happen. Eminent domain is the use by a government to seize citizens’ property without their consent, but with monetary compensation is given. It is generally used in order to clear space for public uses such as hospitals or highways, but has also been used to procure land for economic development projects.
Marco Neira, president of the Willets Point Defense Committee — a group of Willets business owners, workers and property owners — has owned Master Express Deli and Restaurant in Willets Point for 12 years. He plans to make his case that the business owners need to be fairly compensated and relocated if they are forced to move.
“Our argument is we cannot go out of business without relocation. We have to stay in business. If it is not here, they need to help us move somewhere else,” he said. “We’re going to have everybody over there at the meeting. Hundreds of people, all the people from Willets Point are going to be over there.”
Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the EDC, said the project will be a boon for the local economy and that the city plans to work with business owners. She also noted that the city already controls about 90 percent of the land in phase one of the proposed project.
“Not only will this project create thousands of permanent jobs, but we are also committed to helping workers with training classes – which have been attended by more than 500 workers – as well as relocation services,” she said via e-mail. “Businesses in Phase 1 will be contacted to discuss relocation at the end of 2011. Businesses outside of Phase 1 should proceed with business as usual for at least 3 years.”
The city will have 90 days to produce a document known as “determination and findings,” after which it must publish for two consecutive days a summary of concerns raised at the hearing.
Affected property owners then have an opportunity to file petitions to invalidate the findings, which go — contrary to the usual process — directly to the Appellate Division, or to lodge appeals in the Court of Appeals. If none of those appeals are successful, their last chance to stop the project would be to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to look at the project.
Michael Rikon, attorney for Willets Point United — a group of Willets business owners and landowners — said the plan to redevelop the area, which he says was purposely neglected by the city so it could say it was “blighted” and therefore a viable target for eminent domain, will never make it that far.
“[The EDC] will give a talk, they’ll say how magnificent this will be, how fair they’ll be and how everyone’s going to be happy campers at the end of the day. Of course, it’s not true on its face,” he said. “They have kept them blighted for a purpose, that was for them to be able to go forward and condemn whenever they could, and we’re not going to let that happen.”
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.