Council holds hearing on West End eminent domain case
By Joseph Kellard
At age 93, East Atlantic Beach resident Hildegard Miller finds herself fighting City Hall's attempt to seize a parcel of West End commercial property that she has owned for more than 60 years.
With cane in hand, Miller came to Tuesday's Long Beach City Council hearing, at which City Manager Charles Theofan listened to testimony on the 5,400-square-foot parcel, at 1055 West Beech St. Theofan was trying to determine whether the city's plan to take over the property is justified under eminent domain, a government's power to seize private property for public use with monetary compensation. The city hopes to divide the property into 21 parking spaces for the parking-deprived West End neighborhood.
"We have a way to make things better, and that's what we are trying to do," Theofan said.
Under eminent domain proceedings, the government typically condemns the property, usually on grounds that it is "blighted" - dilapidated, contaminated or otherwise unfit for human use. In 2004, Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) gave the city a $250,000 state grant to buy Miller's property, which once housed the West End Service Station, an auto garage that she and her late husband, George Miller, and their daughter, Wendy Hope, ran for decades. Miller discovered that the city was taking eminent domain-related steps only when she saw a photo in the Herald of Skelos and city officials posing with the check on her property, according to Hope.
Miller and her daughter had been trying to sell the property since 1999, and after learning of the city's intentions, Hope, the parcel's co-owner, said she was willing to sell it to the city, and she allowed city officials to perform an environmental study of the lot. They concluded that there had been a spill that contained high levels of volatile gasoline-related contaminants that seeped into the groundwater in and around the site.
Hope then had the property tested by LKB, a consulting engineering firm, which determined that the spill was likely a result of a leak from a gas line that was replaced 40 years ago, and that the contaminant and its spread posed no significant threat to public health. In a June 2007 letter to Miller's attorney, the state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed LKB's conclusion, stating that no further environmental cleanup was needed.
Meanwhile, Miller, Hope and their broker, Joe Sinnona, of the Joe Sinnona Group/ReMax Shores in Long Beach, were still entertaining potential buyers, whose plans for the property ranged from convenience stores to a seafood restaurant. Sinnona said he had offers ranging from $800,000 to $1.2 million. But those offers have gone by the wayside, Sinnona and Hope claim, because the city is characterizing the property as contaminated so that it can afford to buy it.
"And rumors of contamination and condemnation effectively discouraged buyers," said Hope, who traveled from San Diego to attend the June 17 hearing. "We have verbal statements from people to confirm this. It looks like the goal is to bully my mother into accepting a fire sale price."
Theofan said he has thoroughly investigated those charges. "The accusation that the city building department purposely steered potential buyers away from this property is not true," he said.
Theofan also noted that the DEC's 2007 letter was only recently provided to the building department. He asked Hope why, if, under eminent domain law, she and her mother would be paid "fair market value," they did not welcome the offer. "When somebody has been trying to sell a property for nine years without success, then maybe - just maybe - they're asking too much for that property," he said.
Hope responded that she did not think a parking lot was the best plan for a property that could be used to create jobs and generate city taxes, and she objected to the city's "bullying" her mother to take over her property rather than allowing her to sell it on her own. "At this point," Hope said, "we have no faith in the City Council because my experiences have been that you are not to be trusted."
Hope asked why the council hadn't made her mother an offer, as it had with Temple Zion in the West End. At a June 3 hearing, the council voted unanimously to lease a parking lot from the temple, which is expected to provide spaces at no charge to residents, but will cost the city $30,000 to lease. "Why are you taking my property," Miller said to the council, "rather than making me an offer when I know the city buys and leases property all the time."
Theofan explained that he was following eminent domain law, which, at this point in the process, doesn't give him the authority to make an offer. "But I can assure Mrs. Miller that if the City Council does decide to go forward with this process, that offer will come sooner rather than later," he added.
Rick Hoffman, president of the West End Neighbors Civic Association, said that parking is the worst problem in the West End, and that the city is trying to do what is best for his neighborhood. "They are taking a legal route, which they can do," Hoffman said. "These folks have had ample opportunity, nine years, [to sell the property]. It's not like they're going to be robbed."
Hope said that the traffic congestion in the West End is due to crowded, illegal multifamily rentals, which the city should focus on instead.
“Eminent domain is a very, very powerful act by a municipality or other state agency to take property away from an individual," said Mrs. Miller's attorney, Jerome Reisman. "It should not be abused. [Mrs. Miller] should be able to continue to keep it on the open market free of any attempts by the city to take it by eminent domain."
Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.
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