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City poised to seize land at Willets Point

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The city will formally kick off plans to seize control of the remaining privately owned land at Willets Point this month, an announcement that left shocked property owners scrambling for legal help and prompted questions as well as criticism from borough elected officials.

The city Economic Development Corp. said a public hearing on eminent domain would be held at Flushing Town Hall June 22, a procedural first step in the legal process through which the city plans to take the remaining 22 acres of land at Willets Point.

Property owners at Willets Point said representatives from Cornerstone Realty Group, a firm hired by the city to assist in business relocation in the area, canvassed the Iron Triangle last week informing people that the city intended to begin eminent domain proceedings and a letter would arrive Thursday detailing the process.

Jerry Antonacci, co−owner of Crown Container Co. and president of Willets Point United Against Eminent Domain, said he was miffed that city officials did not show up to tell property owners themselves.

“I said to the guy, ‘Why are you here? Why are you telling me this? The city should be the ones telling me this,’” he said. “They’re pretty quick to pull the trigger on eminent domain. But I guess they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do and we’re gonna do what we have to do to stop them.”

He said the property owners group expects to hire a legal firm to fight the city plan within the next week. Private property owners will have 90 days to file a lawsuit after the city files a formal report on its plans, which the EDC expects to occur by early next year.

Out of the 62 acres that make up Willets Point, the city controls approximately 40 acres of land, which it either already owned or acquired in 20 separate land deals with property owners during the last year. Dozens of property owners have yet to reach deals with EDC negotiators, however, and the city’s move toward eminent domain indicates the time to do so outside of a courtroom is drawing to a close.

The EDC said it will continue negotiating indefinitely with property owners to make land deals and did not give a point when such talks would end.

“We have always said condemnation remains our method of last resort for these transactions, and we have reached agreements with property owners as recently as last week. Regardless of the acquisition method, all property owners who sell land to the city via negotiated transaction or via eminent domain will receive fair market value,” said David Lombino, a spokesman for the EDC.

The decision ruffled some feathers among those in the City Council, who have been closely involved in the project as the use of eminent domain generated a firestorm of controversy throughout the public approval process, which ended when the Council backed the city redevelopment plans in November.

Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D−Corona) and state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D−East Elmhurst) said the move toward eminent domain unfairly alters negotiations moving forward.

“I don’t think the city should be imposing eminent domain on land owners while trying to negotiate property deals privately at the same time,” Ferreras said.

Councilman Tony Avella, who along with Councilman Charles Barron (D−Brooklyn) was one of two people to vote against redevelopment plans last fall, said the city lied and his colleagues in the Council fell for it.

“It just goes to show that the Bloomberg administration can’t be trusted,” Avella said. “What’s it going to take for my colleagues to stand up to this guy?”

The EDC said the move to begin the eminent domain process does not represent a departure from its stated intentions and added that no business will have to relocate from Willets Point for at least one year. The June 22 hearing is a procedural prerequisite in the eminent domain process required by state law and formal court proceedings are expected to take close to a year to finalize.

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

Posted 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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