You would think that Columbia University has enough money so it doesn’t have to steal people’s property. But steal someone else’s land is what it was attempting to do, through New York state. Happily, the good guys won at least one round when the an appellate court blocked New York from using eminent domain to take private property for Columbia’s use.
Outside, in the sharp wintry light that makes you squint when the No. 1 train pops out of the tunnel past 122nd Street, the banners were still flying high. Among them was the one that reads, “Stop Columbia! We Won’t Be Pushed Out!”
Inside, in the softer, dimmer light of an office that has 10 lights in the ceiling but no windows, Nicholas Sprayregen was working his way through an in-box suddenly filled with e-mail messages from people he did not know. “Thank you for standing up and fighting to keep the American dream alive,” one wrote. Another said, “It’s like David versus Goliath, and you’re David.”
Mr. Sprayregen, the self-storage impresario who has been fighting Columbia University‘s expansion plan, spent much of Friday reveling in a court ruling that had gone his way. It said that New York State could not use eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf to clear parcels along Broadway that Mr. Sprayregen owns.
So, after a five-year fight that he said had cost him more than $2 million, was he celebrating?
“I wouldn’t say it’s a victory dance,” said Mr. Sprayregen, 47, who runs self-storage warehouses in squat brick buildings where Columbia wants to build shiny new high rises. “It’s more a big sigh of relief.”
The ruling by a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, released Thursday, said the state’s condemnation procedure in taking land for the Columbia project, in the Manhattanville neighborhood, was unconstitutional. Justice James M. Catterson, who wrote the majority opinion, was withering in his criticism of way the state agency that approved the use of eminent domain had reached its decision.
The legal battle isn’t over and Nicholas Sprayregen could still lose. But the ruling is an important indication that property rights retain legal vitality even in New York, where the government is unreservedly hostile to the principles of individual liberty and limited government.