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Willets Point biz owners eye legal options after vote

Property owners are attempting to regroup following the City Council vote to approve the redevelopment of Willets Point last month, but while the fight goes on, legal options for opposition to the project are becoming few and far between.

Attorneys and organizers from the Institute of Justice met with dozens of property owners from Willets Point in Flushing last week in hopes of hashing out a plan to halt the project or the potential use of eminent domain, which would transform the 60−acre area into a sprawling commercial and residential neighborhood.

The collection of property owners formed a new group, Willets Point United Against Eminent Domain, which hope to lobby Gov. David Paterson next month to block the project.

“I’m very optimistic we can beat this without going to court,” said Christina Walsh, of the Institute of Justice. “If the governor sees this, there’s no way he can tolerate it.”

It was unclear if Paterson could or would lobby against the project, which has been entirely funded by the city to this point.

After completing several property acquisition deals ahead of the Nov. 13 City Council vote, the city now controls more than 50 percent of the land at Willets Point, but dozens of smaller property owners still have not struck deals with the city Economic Development Corp., which is administering the project.

Business owners are particularly concerned because the city now has the authority to use eminent domain to take the property.

While some property owners have already explored legal options, Institute of Justice attorney Dana Berliner said this tactic should be left as a last resort because New York state’s eminent domain laws are among the toughest in the country to fight.

“You don’t want to be litigating about eminent domain,” Berliner said. “The courts in New York have been really terrible. So it’s very difficult to litigate this sort of case in this state.”

Berliner said that if the case went to court, the property owners would have some options.

“You guys have a unique angle in that you can make the argument that the city has caused the blight at Willets Point,” she said. “They need to say it’s a blight to take the land. This is not a legal claim that’s been argued. It’s a new one, it could work.”

The Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, a coalition of about a dozen of the largest property owners at Willets Point, filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this year to have basic infrastructure, such as paved roads, sewers and street lights, put in at Willets Point — amenities the area lacks today. The lawsuit was still pending, however.

Though the battle to halt the Willets Point development project is considerably bleaker since the Council vote, Walsh told the property owners that all hope was not lost.

“You can sit back and do nothing and the project is an inevitability,” Walsh said. “Or you can try to fight it and have a chance to beat it.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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