Photo credit: Buffalo News
Amherst, in Western New York, has a population of 126,000. In this small town is a smaller piece of property located on the corner of Kenmore Avenue and Niagara Falls Boulevard. If you drove past it, it might not even catch your attention. But since there are talks of eminent domain, it caught our attention and we decided to blog about it.
This small vacant lot that is covered with weeds, gravel and ugly concrete barriers is owned by oil and real estate billionaire John Catsimatidis. The billionaire and the town of Amherst have been in a heated battle because the town is looking to turn the eyesore into a park.
On July 28, the town seized the property, using the power of eminent domain, deeming that the land should be used for a public use (i.e., the park). Catsimatidis wasn’t having it and does not believe the public park qualifies.
How did it all start? Back in 1999, the town widened the streets around the corner and cut into the property. Catsimatidis' United Refining Company had to knock down its gas station on the site, because the property was no longer large enough to accommodate the pumps. By paying a few hundred dollars in property taxes each year, Catsimatidis was able to hold on to the property without doing anything to it. That was until neighbors started to complain.
Fast forward to 2018 and the town proposed a plan to turn the corner lot, which is near the University at Buffalo’s south campus, into a small park with sheltered bus stops. After a public hearing, the town determined to acquire the property through its powers of eminent domain, and Catsimatidis was offered $81,000 for the lot. This was based on an appraisal. As you can probably guess, Catsimatidis said no.
Next came-you guessed it-a court battle. Catsimatidis charged that the taking of his property was unconstitutional, and merely a pretext for the government to create a small park and give the rest of the land to another developer.
Catsimatidis said that years ago he offered to buy the neighboring lot from the town and develop a new gas station on the combined property. He said that he also offered to build and maintain any public park, so long as he retained ownership of the parcel and its development rights. Stanley Sliwa, Amherst’s town attorney, said “[t] hat was unacceptable. We didn’t want to give someone who’s been sitting on a vacant lot for 20 years the chance to continue to do nothing.”
The saga continues and, in the end, the courts backed the town of Amherst’s plan. The court ruled last year that the use of eminent domain to seize Catsimatidis’ lot serves a valid public use. Attempts to appeal were unsuccessful.
Governments do have broad power to use eminent domain (which is why you need the right legal team to ensure that your rights are protected to the fullest extent of the law).
The town of Amherst took possession of the lot on July 28. But the battle is not over. Catsimatidis still has time to file a claim for just compensation. The town is still offering $81,000, and Catsimatidis is still saying that the parcel, which is assessed for tax purposes at $32,000, is worth more than $300,000. Catsimatidis says he’s willing to donate the money to charity.
Catsimatidis says he is considering another bid for NYC mayor’s office, and says he’s willing to spend as much as $100 million of his fortune on the campaign (as many may remember, he ran for mayor of New York in 2013 but lost the Republican primary).
The town has yet to put forth a formal plan for the lot, but says it’s weighing its options. Catsimatidis, meanwhile, is preparing for the battle over how much he’s owed and offers a word of caution: “If they can do this to me, they can do it to anybody.” This, dear readers, is true. Eminent domain can happen to anyone.
Needless to say, the pandemic has been a challenging ride for landlords. The saga continues with a potential bright spot that would give NYC landlords eligibility for 10-years’ worth of property tax breaks.
Two new bills have been introduced by several New York politicians that focus on helping small businesses manage high rents during the pandemic. The biggest focus is on restaurants and bars that have been hit hard over the past five months.
The proposed plan recommends that New York State authorize New York City to be able to give 10-years’ worth of property tax breaks to landlords who are willing to agree on new lease terms with struggling business tenants. The plan would allow landlords to renegotiate lease terms to address unpaid back rent and limit future rent hikes.
The two new bills were proposed by NYC Council Members including Brad Lander, who represents parts of Brooklyn including Cobble Hill, Gowanus, and Park Slope, and Keith Powers, who represents Manhattan neighborhoods including the Upper East Side and Times Square, joined with state assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who represents parts of lower Manhattan including Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and state senator Brian Kavanagh.
These bills are only the latest in several pieces of proposed local legislature that are seeking to push lawmakers into helping NYC’s struggling small businesses survive the pandemic. In July, Keith Powers introduced a bill to abolish commercial rent tax in the city until the state of emergency has lifted. He also called for a bill to permanently implement an annual outdoor dining program that restaurants can rely on to boost sales. (We love outdoor dining!)
The bill focusing on commercial rent tax relief has been seeing support, and currently has seven sponsors.
We know it’s a tough time and hope that this legislation won’t be too late. Countless NYC restaurants have been permanently closing as the pandemic continues to see closed offices and residents leaving. Owners cite failed lease renegotiations as another part of the problem that leads to permanent closures for these small businesses.
We will keep you posted on these New York real estate issues, and of course, any issues related to eminent domain.
To be honest, some of us thought that the only hardware stores in town were Home Depot and Lowes, maybe a True Value here and there. As it turns out, when you get to Suffolk County on Long Island, Brinkmann's Hardware, which has locations in Sayville, Blue Point, Holbrook and Miller Place, as well as a paint store in Jamesport is seeking to open another location 12500 Main Road in Mattituck, New York.
Here lies the New York eminent domain story for our weekly blog post.
The parcel of land where Brinkmann's Hardware, Mattituck location is set to be has the community divided and the possibility of Southold Town seizing the land through eminent domain. The Brickman family wants their hardware store built, while some community members and town officials would like to use the land for a public park.
Supreme Court Justice Hon. William Ford ruled in favor of the Brinkmann family when he denied Southold Town's request for dismissal of the Brinkmann’s lawsuit. The family claims that they have seen their efforts thwarted by a moratorium imposed by Southold Town. The Town recently noticed a hearing for the extension of the moratorium for a third time.
Litigation was started by Brinkmann Hardware Corp., which filed an Article 78 against Southold Town over a moratorium enacted in February of 2019. The suit maintains that while the town said the moratorium was enacted to temporarily put a halt on the issuance of approvals and permits on Main Rd. in Mattituck (while an expanded corridor study, weighing traffic impacts and other concerns, was underway). The Brinkmanns allege that the true purpose of the moratorium was to prevent them from building another hardware store. The suit asked the court to declare the moratorium, a local law, "unconstitutional, null and void."
Members of the Brinkmann family accused Supervisor Russell of blocking the project due to personal reasons. They say that if the true motive was a public park, the town would buy the parcel directly adjacent to the property in question, which is currently for sale. In addition, they are also claiming that defending the moratorium would cost taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars. A new suit to fight eminent domain proceedings would be even more expensive.
As part of the new store’s development, the Brinkmann family said that they hired a local architect and reached out to the community to work together and be open about plans. The family has said publicly that they believe that Russell has personal reasons for stopping the project. Russell has claimed that he does not know the Brinkmanns, and that he had never heard of them or their hardware store.
Assistant Town Planning Director Mark Terry gave a timeline and said hamlet studies and the town's comprehensive plan urge that the property be used as a green space. Dr. Anne Smith, current president of the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, said the group supported the idea of keeping the parcel, "the last green corner," as parkland for the benefit of the community and visitors, while not supporting the seizure of the land by eminent domain.
The location seems to be an interesting spot for a public space. Mark Haubner, vice president of the North Fork Environmental Council said a traffic study in the town's newly completed comprehensive plan, listed the intersection of New Suffolk Avenue and Main Road as one of the "top 5 most dangerous intersections" in town.
In a public meeting, it was explained that the hamlet business zoned parcel, 1.775 acres, would feature two buildings that total 20,000 square feet, 80 parking spots, meet green space and Suffolk County Health Department requirements, and is sited to maximize solar gain. The building is being planned as a 12,000 square foot hardware store, with the 8,000 square foot building on the right including 3,000 square feet in the front for paint and 5,000 square feet in the rear for storage. There was an uproar from the community when a traffic light was discussed. The new store would add 25 local jobs.
Of course, we will keep you posted on the developments of this eminent domain case. Never a dull moment!