Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Times’s continued blind spots in its eminent domain coverage

Today, the New York Times takes a long look at eminent domain in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The article’s a competent round-up, portraying some victims of eminent domain abuse sympathetically while giving advocates, who consider it an important tool in the redevelopment toolbox, their due.

If you live in New York City, however, the article doesn't come in your print edition. Rather, it's appears only in the Times's Sunday regional sections (Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut), headlined Now You Own It, Soon You Don’t?. The cover story in the City section, available to purchasers in New York City, concerns explorers of abandoned places like tunnels.

A way out?

Maybe the placement of the article made it easier for the Times to fail to acknowledge that its parent company is a beneficiary of eminent domain, for the new Times Tower in Manhattan. Or to mention the eminent domain donnybrook concerning Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and developer Forest City Ratner, the same developer that has partnered with the Times Company in building the Times Tower.

Sure, reporters have to pick and choose, but the Times does point out how, in the wake of legislative inaction in all three states, in New Jersey, the courts have stepped in, assisted by the state’s Public Advocate, overruling the designation that “unproductive” properties—as in, not built out to full zoning rights—are blighted. That’s further stopped a major development plan in Newark. As I’ve written, were Atlantic Yards in New Jersey, the new rules might stymie the project.

And the Times, of course, never covered the May 3 court hearing in the suit challenging the Atlantic Yards environmental review, during which Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden expressed skepticism about the designation of blight.

The pattern is dismaying. In a front-page round-up article on eminent domain in February 2006, the Times similarly failed to mention Atlantic Yards or the Times Tower. However, three months later, when Mayor Mike Bloomberg defended eminent domain as a priority, the Times in its coverage acknowledged the newspaper company's own history.

Region trailing

In today's article, the Times quotes an opponent of eminent domain abuse:
“New Jersey and New York are among the worst states in the country for eminent domain abuses — New Jersey is really awful,” said Dana Berliner, a senior lawyer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., which represents residential and business owners facing condemnation. “What’s interesting is that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are some of the few states that have not managed to pass any decent legislation.”

The Institute for Justice has criticized the use of eminent domain for Atlantic Yards.

Effect in Brooklyn

And what have others done? The Times reports:
Other states have instituted more precise definitions of blight, set minimum compensation levels above market value for the owners of seized properties and restricted eminent domain to more traditional public projects like schools and roads. The legislative changes have been driven by an unusual alliance of conservative Republican property-rights advocates and liberals interested in the rights of lower-income people.


A more precise definition of blight and a limitation to "traditional public projects" would certainly have slowed, if not stymied, eminent domain for Atlantic Yards.

The Times reports on changes in Connecticut:
The law that [Gov. Jodi]. Rell signed requires that municipal legislative bodies approve eminent domain seizures by a two-thirds majority and that property owners be reimbursed at 125 percent of fair market value. It also built in other protective measures for property owners.


And were those changes transposed to New York, eminent domain for Atlantic Yards would not have been decided by four unelected and not-so-informed board members of the Empire State Development Corporation, but instead a supermajority of elected officials.

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