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Judge puts off hearing on Willets activsts’ case

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A state judge has postponed a court appearance related to a legal effort by a group of Willets Point property and business owners to stall the city from moving forward with its $3 billion redevelopment of the site.

State Supreme Court Judge Joan Madden said she elected to move the hearing — originally scheduled for July 20 — to Aug. 9 because of a scheduling conflict with an ongoing trial, according to two sources close to the proceedings.

Madden told the city in an April court document that it must prove to her by July 20 “why an order should not be entered vacating the Aug. 24, 2010, order dismissing [the property owners’] Article 78 petition and permitting supplemental briefing and reargument in light of recent developments and newly discovered evidence.”

The decision came after Willets Point United argued in Madden’s court March 29 that she should reopen the case.

The hearing will be the next step in Madden’s review of a closed suit Willets Point United filed in hopes of blocking the redevelopment of the derelict 62-acre area. The group’s argument centers around the city’s contention that before it condemns land for the 20-acre first phase of the project’s construction, it does not have to receive approval for ramps onto the Van Wyck Expressway that its own environmental studies say must be built in order to handle increased traffic the development is projected to bring to Queens roads.

The group contends that changes to the timeframe for the project’s traffic mitigation measures mean the project must be reviewed again by the judge and City Council because the changes amount to a major reworking of the project.

The city counters that the project can move forward despite the changes because it believes the ramps are not required to be built during the first phase.

“The judge has given us another chance to show that our actions complied with the law, and we look forward to doing that in court,” former city Economic Development Corp. spokeswoman Julie Wood said in a statement in April. “In the meantime, we are moving forward with the project and don’t believe this will have any impact on our timeline.”

Wood’s replacement, Jennifer Friedberg, declined to comment specifically on the postponement of the July 20 hearing.

Robert LoScalzo, an expert on Willets Point who is aligned with Willets Point United, said he believes the group is on solid legal footing.

“The first issue is does [Madden] have the legal right under the present set of facts to reopen the case? The city says she does not, but Willets Point United says absolutely she does,” he said.

LoScalzo contends that the impact the first phase of the project will have on the community will be greatly exacerbated if the city is not required to build the ramps when it undertakes that initial work.

“You’re going to get only one-third of the benefits of the redevelopment, but all of the impacts,” he said.

In May, the Federal Highway Administration and state Department of Transportation gave authorization for the city to proceed with the public review process for the new Van Wyck ramps, but Madden still has the ability to listen to Willets Point United and revisit the group’s petition.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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