Usually we post about eminent domain in New York State, but the truth is that across the nation there are lots of interesting cases to write about. Especially this one that we recently came across. We have to admit it’s the first time we’ve ever written about eminent domain and tree houses. Here goes!
In Columbia, Missouri Ms. Sutu Forte, who is 67-years old, is fighting against City Hall. She is doing this from a tree house where she is holding a “sit in” or “tree sit” in a statement of protest for the construction of a new trail on Bluff Dale Drive. She wants to stop the removal of some old trees in a Columbia neighborhood to make way for a new hiking and biking trail. News reports say that she has been doing this for several days.
(We don’t want to get off track, but we can’t help but wondering about bathroom facilities, running water, food, and the comforts of home!)
According to Forte, she commented, “I’m doing well. I’m filled with warmth and people caring and their support. They’re taking a big interest in what our statement is to save this land.”
City leaders took the property through eminent domain from Forte’s organization called “It’s Our Wild Nature”. (A very fitting name if you ask us!). As one would imagine for a “tree sit”, Forte said that she was not moving from the tree house until city leaders stopped their new trail construction plans.
In 2019, Columbia City leaders paid $85,000 to take title to the easements for trail construction through eminent domain. Forte’s non-profit “It’s Our Wild Nature” was the former owner of the land. Leaders of the non-profit filed a request in court to increase the City’s payment to a higher, fair market price under the State’s eminent domain laws. (We’ve certainly heard this before). In October 2020, a jury trial was set to finally decide how much the land is worth.
City of Columbia spokesman Steve Sapp said, “We continue to work with It’s Our Wild Nature [as] we’ve doing since 2013. Unfortunately, we’re just unable to come up with a compromise that suited both parties.”
We often write about the law in New York, which is different than that of most other States (for example, New York is one of the only States that does not allow jury trials for eminent domain takings). However, once the government acquires property by eminent domain, the former owner loses its rights to it. That law is universal.
In the case of Ms. Forte, the treehouse trespasser, City officials will have the option to file a complaint with police, and probably the court, to get Forte out of the tree when construction of the new trail is scheduled to begin.
We’re guessing a few squirrels and birds are probably upset too.
Images of sign courtesy of Central Park Conservancy
Our blog posts most often focus on current eminent domain news, but the truth is that the process been around for a very long time. Even during the mid-19th century, the power of eminent domain was used to requisition private land for public use.
We recently read about an announcement from the office of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio about plans to build a monument in honor a prominent African-American family. The family once lived in the bustling community called Seneca Village which was located between New York’s West 83rd and 89th Streets.
The community can trace its roots to 1825, to two landowners subdivided their property and began selling it off as lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe shiner, was the first to purchase land in the new settlement. By 1855, around 225 people lived in the village. (Approximately one-third of the population were Irish immigrants.) Many members of the African-American community that lived there owned their own property. Because it was a distance from the crowds of lower Manhattan, they avoided some of the city’s discrimination.
Things took a dramatic change when local authorities began moving forward with plans to build Central Park. Through the process of eminent domain, Seneca Village residents were forced to leave their homes. It is estimated that over 1,600 people were displaced in order to make room for the development of Central Park.
Similar to today, residents felt that while they were compensated, it wasn’t what they deserved. Also similar is the effect on the community. “Many of the residents stayed relatively local to New York [after the village was demolished], but what they did not do was stay together,” explains Diana Wall, an anthropologist. “And that’s what’s so tragic: It was a community, and then the community was gone.”
The monument planned will honor the Lyons family: Albro, Mary Joseph and their daughter Maritcha. Each played an important role in NYC’s history as abolitionists, educators and property owners. Maritcha founded the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, which advocated for women’s rights and racial justice.
There has been criticism about the monument, as the proposed location is on 106th Street, approximately 20 blocks north of where Seneca Village was actually located. Many people feel that where the monument is located is just as important as to whom it honors.
A spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs responded to the criticism, saying that “A range of factors are considered when selecting sites for public monuments, including feasibility, cost, historical significance, contemporary context, and public prominence. The Lyons family’s contributions exemplified values that still resonate powerfully here and beyond.”
Just in case you are wondering, the memorial will be privately funded by the Ford Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.
The World Series is upon us. While many are reviewing scores and players, others are taking stock in the role of eminent domain in baseball. Specifically, Nationals Park in Washington DC. So often a new stadium is a cause for celebration and pride, especially if there is a new team coming to town. But how often do we think about how that new stadium got there and who was displaced in the process? A while back this was the case for Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. In 2008, it was the case for Nationals Stadium.
A recent story in The Washington Post reveals the stories behind some of the individuals and businesses that were affected by eminent domain and the building of Nationals Stadium. Similar to many of our posts on the subject, the stories are often emotional and expensive.
Plans for the stadium began in 2004 when then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Major League Baseball announced a deal to bring baseball back to Washington. It had been more than 30-years since the Senators baseball team left.
It may have seemed like a dangerous and unused area ready to be developed, but South Capitol Street SW, just a five-minute drive from the Capitol dome on the west edge of the Navy Yard, featured an area of 21-acres with several family businesses including asphalt plant, a trash-transfer station, car repair shops, warehouses, towing operations, a stonework restoration studio, and several adult nightclubs. Due to zoning laws, many of these businesses had no place to go once they were forced to move.
For example, Joey Roubin and his family owned an asphalt plant with his family that was shut down to make way for the Stadium. Eminent Domain proceedings resulted in subpoenas, legal judgments, bureaucratic red tape and years of delays. He finally reopened the business a few miles away at Blue Plains in Southwest Washington.
In the name of economic renewal, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in public financing for the ballpark. As might be expected, support for the project was divided along the lines of race and class. Affluent areas were more supportive of the project and poorer neighborhoods were fearful of being left behind by gentrification.
Businesses and families faced years of court arbitration to finally find some sort of settlement with the city government. Payouts may sound generous, but property owners felt that they did not get what they deserved. Sadly, in the case of the Stadium some businesses never reopened, and several had to move away. Others relocated elsewhere, all in the name of baseball.
After a five-month assessment in 2005, city planners offered the 23 property owners a total of $95 million for their land, which two years earlier had been assessed at $32 million. If that seems like a lot, it still does not take into consideration the cost to taxpayers once negotiations were finished. In all, 16 of the 23 property owners filed for court-monitored arbitration, and each would ultimately settle for more than the city had offered — though less than they had sought. (Hence the need for an “MVP” legal team.)
So this week, as we watch our favorite baseball teams play ball in the stadium, let’s remind ourselves that eminent domain may have been a playing factor.