In a recent post on Kaur v. Urban Development Corporation, the Columbia eminent domain case currently before New York’s state supreme court, NYU lawprof Rick Hills argues that the debate over eminent domain is largely meaningless. Kaur, like the Atlantic Yards case before it, addresses a key issue in takings law: whether the condemnation of “blighted” property for transfer to a private party qualifies as a “public use” under state and federal constitutions even if “blight” is defined so broadly that almost any area can be declared blighted and condemned.
Hills argues that efforts to address this question are ultimately futile and tend to elide the really important issues:
[T]he doctrinal battle… [in Kaur] really is rooted in empty, incoherent blather that can never be a satisfying basis for a doctrine. “Blight” is an epithet in search of a definition, while “public use” is either merely a requirement of public benefit (in which case, it is judicially unmanageable) or a requirement of public title (in which case, it is a perverse encouragement of statist inefficiency).
The concepts of “public use” and “blight” ignore the real and fundamental dilemma raised by over-fragmented land — viz.: (a) land markets tend to do a poor job of re-assembling over-fragmented parcels but (b) assemblers use eminent domain to hog all of the post-assembly surplus, to the justified resentment of the dispossessed owners. Absent some assembly mechanism beyond arms’ length private bargaining, Manhattanville will be locked into drab industrial uses — gas stations, storage facilities, auto repair, etc — that, I strongly suspect, the owners themselves would quickly jettison if they could get a reasonable share of the “post-assembly” value. Getting rid of eminent domain will not vindicate these owners’ private property rights: It will simply insure that they can remain trapped