Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino plans to use eminent domain to take 10 acres of forest land from Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR) to create Centennial Park. The proposed project has faced opposition from residents, mainly because the land is being designated as an “urban blight.”
Currently, Restaino has no funding for the project. Yet, he is assuring the public that he can hand the property to a developer of his choosing to develop a project of his choosing.
Eminent domain is the forcing of a sale of a property. The courts determine the fair price to be paid to the owner.
Restaino has provided granular detail. He explains that the City can borrow $10 million in Community Block Grant funds to acquire Parcel 0 and pay back $20 million over 20 years.
Stakeholders, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 237, have criticized the Mayor’s proposal. IBEW members described NFR’s proposed $1.5 billion Niagara Digital Campus project as “much needed” and “an incredible opportunity for the City of Niagara Falls.”
During the hearing, Restaino presented sketches of the proposed Centennial Park. He further detailed how the City could divert federal funds for road repairs and other services to raise half the funds for the acquisition. However, he admitted that he did not have a final plan and could not determine the exact cost of the project.
Restaino also acknowledged that the forested land, Parcel 0, is not technically being taken to build Centennial Park. The Mayor wants to take it because it is classified as “blight.” Critics have argued that the move could set a precedent for the government to take forest and farmland from landowners more easily.
John Horn, an attorney for NFR, challenged the Mayor on the validity of the eminent domain case. He suggested that Parcel 0 is not the proper location for Centennial Park. The debate centered on whether wooded land can be classified as blight. The legal definition of blight is associated with building on the property, not the land itself.
Horn argued that Restaino’s proposal would change how vacant land is owned in New York. Restaino’s actions could set a precedent allowing the government to determine the rightful land owners. Horn also pointed out that Restaino may never build Centennial Park. The Mayor could sell the land to a developer if he secures funding.
The hearing included other speakers, including business people, a former National Grid executive, an IT specialist, and City Council candidates. Many speakers opposed Restaino’s plan and suggested he should build the events center elsewhere.
The City’s eminent domain “trees are blight” argument will be heard before the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court on May 22, 2023, with a decision expected months later.
The Restaino plan would change how vacant land is owned in New York. Now, private property owners have the priority of using their land as they wish. If Restaino’s plan succeeds, the government will determine the “right” and “wrong” land owners. There would be no legal impediment to taking from the “wrong” and giving to the “right” by labeling land as blight.
If Restaino can convince the court that wooded land is blight, which justifies the public purpose of taking land from the owner, a new partnership between private developers may make way for new precedents in campaign financing exemptions. The “right” owners may very well turn out to be the most prominent political campaign contributors.