In 1997, after renting space for nearly two decades, St. Luke's Pentecostal Church of North Hempstead, N.Y., finally found a permanent home. Or so its congregants thought.
Using money it had raised over several years, St. Luke's bought a nearly complete church building on Prospect Avenue for $130,000. It borrowed an additional $207,000 to finish the project but had trouble getting a permit for the work because the town's building department said the church would need more off-street parking.
At a zoning hearing in July 1998, St. Luke's asked for an exemption from the parking requirement. But it faced a much more serious problem that made the parking issue irrelevant: In 1994, three years before St. Luke's bought what its congregants believed would be their new church, the North Hempstead Community Development Agency had decided to condemn the building as part of the town's Urban Renewal Plan.
Although Kevin Saunders, the NHCDA's executive director, participated in the zoning hearing, he did not mention the pending condemnation. St. Luke's had no inkling of it until that November, when the church received a letter from the NHCDA offering $80,000 for the property -- $50,000 less than the congregation had paid for it. If St. Luke's didn't want to sell, that was too bad: The town would take the property anyway.
"We found out that we owned the building, but it wasn't ours," says Pastor Fred Jenkins, who founded the church in 1979. "It's unfair that they did not let us know prior to our buying it."
Before completing the purchase, St. Luke's had done a title search, examined other official documents pertaining to the property, and discussed its plans at length with the building department. "There was nothing to show that (the town) had an interest in the property," Jenkins explains. "If we had known that, we wouldn't have bought it."
St. Luke's is one of several plaintiffs challenging New York state's eminent domain procedures in a federal lawsuit filed on Oct. 4. The suit, prepared by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, argues that New York's Eminent Domain Procedure Law violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process because it gives property owners almost no chance of successfully fighting a government land grab.
New York's rules are absurdly rigged in favor of the government. When an agency such as the NHCDA decides that it has a better use for your property than you do, it has to hold a hearing, but it doesn't have to tell you about it. It need only put a notice in the newspaper.
If you happen to see the notice and come to the hearing, you can offer a statement, but you can't call witnesses or ask questions. Once the government decides to go ahead with the condemnation, it has to publish another notice. Whether or not you see it, you have 30 days to appeal, after which you lose your rights forever.
There is no requirement that owners be directly informed that the government plans to take their property, or that they have a right to appeal, or that they have only a month to exercise that right. And as Fred Jenkins and his congregants discovered, there is no requirement that buyers be notified of a pending condemnation.
It's not clear exactly why North Hempstead wants the St. Luke's property. But in the two other cases underlying the Institute for Justice lawsuit, the government is trying to take the plaintiffs' property and give it to people it likes better.
The Empire State Development Corporation wants to get rid of Minic Custom Woodwork, a 73-year-old, family-owned business in East Harlem, to make room for a retail center that's expected to include a Home Depot and a Costco. The Village of Port Chester wants to throw out the tenants of four newly renovated commercial buildings owned by William Brody and turn the property over to a supermarket.
In all three of these cases, the owners did not have a clear sense of what was going on until it was too late. Given the flimsiness of New York's safeguards, they seem to have a decent chance of winning a federal injunction.
But even if they do, there remains the broader issue of why government planners should be empowered to dispossess people in the name of urban renewal. Where the government sees "blight," its victims see their homes, their hard work, their livelihoods, and their dreams.