Willets backers plan to reopen suit against city

Willets Point United and several individual property owners in the Iron Triangle hope to reopen a lawsuit against the city in an attempt to block or stall its proposal to redevelop the 62-acre site.
By Connor Adams Sheets

A cadre of Willets Point property owners plans to file a motion by the end of the month to reopen a lawsuit against the city in response to environmental law violations the group alleges the city has made in pursuit of its $3 billion redevelopment plan for the 62-acre site.

The announcement that Willets Point United and several individual landowners hope to revisit the lawsuit, which was dismissed in New York Supreme Court last year, came just days before a hearing scheduled for this week as part of the 60-day public comment period that must take place after a government mails out eminent domain notices in the opening salvo toward seizing their land.

The city Economic Development Corp. sent out the letters last month to a number of businesses, starting a process which could result in property owners being forced to give up their land to make room for the massive project.

The notices, which were sent to the 12 percent of business owners in the first phase of the 62-acre project who have not agreed to sell their land, represent a reneging on promises the city made, said Michael Gerrard, a lawyer for the group. The EDC pledged to wait to initiate the eminent domain process until it had approval for construction plans for ramps onto the Van Wyck Expressway to handle the expected 80,000 daily new car trips the project is expected to create, Gerrard said.

The project’s first phase contains 20 acres bounded roughly by 126th and 127th streets and 35th and Roosevelt avenues.

“They promised they wouldn’t go ahead with the condemnation proceedings until they had approval for the ramps and they don’t have that approval and they should have prepared a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that would have examined the impacts of building the projects without the ramps,” Gerrard said.

Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the EDC, provided a short written statement regarding the suit.

“We will review the lawsuit when it is filed and look forward to resolving it so that we can continue to make progress on this project,” she said.

The EDC has said that proceeding with the first phase of the project does not require building the ramps.

The first phase of the project is expected to include 1.3 million square feet of development, including market-rate and affordable housing, retail space, a hotel, 2 acres of open space and necessary infrastructure improvements. The entire project is to include more than 5,000 apartments, 1.7 million square feet of retail and a hotel to be built in three phases.

The March 2 hearing was slated to be the only official forum for public comment on the first-phase eminent domain proceedings and was to be attended by representatives of the EDC and Cornerstone Group, the firm handling relocation of area businesses.

The city now has 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 state Court of Appeals. If none of those appeals are successful, their last chance to stop the project — other than Willets Point United’s suit if it is reopened — would be to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to look at the project.

Courts have not been consistent in their rulings on eminent domain. The landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London set the precedent that governments could seize land on behalf of a private developer for uses deemed to be in the public good, which in that case included economic development.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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