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.