George Will

Since then, that term, untethered from serious social dangers, has become elastic in the service of avarice. In 2005, the court held, 5-4, that New London, Conn., could take the property of a middle-class neighborhood and transfer it to a corporate developer who would pay more taxes to the city government than the evicted homeowners had paid. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, dissenting, warned that the consequences of the decision would "not be random." The beneficiaries would be people "with disproportionate influence and power in the political process."

Enter Ratner, with plans to build a huge complex of high-rise residences, commercial properties and a basketball arena for the NBA's New Jersey Nets, which he bought. The city and state governments salivated at the thought of new revenues -- perhaps chimerical -- to waste. The problem was, and is, that people live and work where Ratner wants to build.

So blight had to be discovered. It duly was, by a firm that specializes in such discoveries. New York's highest court ratified that finding, 6-1.

But a week later, Columbia University, which has plans for a $6.3 billion expansion in Manhattan, was stymied in its attempt to wield the life-shattering power of eminent domain against several local businesses that do not want to be shattered. A state court held, 3-2, that condemnation proceedings had been unconstitutional. The court said the blight designation was "mere sophistry": "Even a cursory examination of the study reveals the idiocy of considering things like unpainted block walls or loose awning supports as evidence of a blighted neighborhood."

The idiocy was written on Columbia's behalf by the same firm the Empire State Development Corporation hired to find blight at the Brooklyn site. Both Columbia and Ratner are operating in partnership with the ESDC, an arm of the state government. Both Columbia's and Ratner's attempts at seizing property are "pretextual takings," using trumped-up accusations of blight to concoct a spurious "public use" for a preconceived project.

The Atlantic Yards nonsense was compounded when Ratner, to bolster his balance sheet after the real estate collapse, sold the Nets to a Russian billionaire, who stands to benefit from Ratner's government-subsidized seizure of other people's property. Those people can only hope that New York's highest court will grant their appeal for reconsideration on the grounds that Ratner's argument is about as good as the Nets are. Through Friday, their record was 3-29.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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