Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 30, 2017

NY Court of Appeals Holds Proposed New Developments on Previously-Authorized Stadium Site Violated the Public Trust Doctrine

Plaintiffs – a State Senator, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, taxpayers, and users of Flushing Meadows Park -brought a CPLR article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action to enjoin the proposed development of parkland in Queens. The proposed development, “Willets West,” involved the construction of a shopping mall and movie theater on Citi Field’s parking lot, where Shea Stadium once stood. The Supreme Court denied the petition for declaratory and injunctive relief and dismissed the proceeding. The Appellate Division unanimously reversed and granted the petition “to the extent of declaring that construction of Willets West on City parkland without the authorization of the state legislature violates the public trust doctrine, and enjoining any further steps toward its construction.”

Here, there was no dispute that the Willets West development was proposed to be constructed entirely on city parkland. On appeal, defendants argued that the 1961 legislation concerning Shea Stadium, which the City constructed on parkland, constituted legislative authorization for the Willets West development. That legislation, codified in section 18–118 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York, was titled: “Renting of stadium in Flushing Meadow Park; exemption from down payment requirements.” In reviewing the plain language of that section, the court found that interpreting the phrase “improvement of trade or commerce” to grant authorization for the construction of anything that might improve trade or commerce, would lead to an absurd result. Instead, the court found that the 1961 legislation limited the City’s legislation to “appurtenant grounds, parking areas and other facilities,” and that no difference between “appurtenant” and “stadium related” in the context of these statutes existed. Furthermore, the legislative history demonstrated that the statute was intended to authorize the lease, rental or licensing of the stadium, not the construction of unrelated facilities. While the court acknowledged that the remediation of Willets Point was a laudable goal, it nevertheless held that the statutory language and legislative history demonstrated the legislation did not authorize further developments on the tract of parkland. As such, the order of the Appellate Division was affirmed.

Avella v. City of New York, 2017 WL 2427307 (6/6/2017)

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