Can NYS Rename Trump State Park?

 

photo by Jeffrey Putman

Politifact quoted me in Can New York State Rename Donald J. Trump State Park? It reads,

Even after officially decamping for Palm Beach, Fla., former President Donald Trump has continued to stir emotions in his previous home state of New York.

New York Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, a Democrat, said she believes a park currently named for Trump north of New York City should be renamed. Trump donated the land for the park, and it was agreed at the time it would be named after him.

In a Jan. 14 letter to Erik Kulleseid, the Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner in New York, Galef wrote, “It is my understanding that Mr. Trump did not sign the appropriate documents with the state, rendering any claim of breach of contract moot. We can and should rename the park.”

In an interview, Galef added that the park “really hasn’t been fixed up” and that efforts to do so would be hobbled by having Trump’s name on it. Galef said she believes the park should instead be named after former New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican.

“Around this area, when you have ‘Trump’ on the name of something, it doesn’t go over very well,” Galef said. “My concern is that people aren’t going to want to put money into Trump Park, whether it’s state dollars or any private dollars.”

Galef has support in her quest to rename the park: On Feb. 11, a bill advanced in the Assembly to continue talks on renaming the park.

But the former president may pursue litigation against the state if the Parks Department decides to rename the park, a Trump spokesman said.

“Despite the fact that the state has done a horrible job running and maintaining the park in question, an utter disgrace to such incredible land and a generous donation, the conditions of this gift, formally documented and accepted by the state of New York, could not be clearer: the park must bear Trump’s name,” Trump’s office said in a statement. “This would be breaching its agreement by removing Trump’s name, and Trump will take whatever legal action that may be necessary to fully enforce his rights under this agreement.”

Is Galef right that New York state could change the name without too much difficulty? The answer isn’t clear enough for us to render a Truth-O-Meter verdict. But we decided to take a look at the issue and explain what we found.

How the park came to be

Donald J. Trump State Park sits on the border of Putnam and Westchester counties along the Taconic Parkway. Trump gave the land to New York State in 2006 after the former president failed in building a golf course on it.

The land deed for the property does not include any naming provisions, but the state named the park after Trump based on a letter of agreement between the Parks Department and Trump’s lawyers.

The letter outlined several terms, one of which is the following: “Each of the properties will bear a name which includes Mr. Trump’s name, in acknowledgment of these gifts. The name will be prominently displayed at least at each entrance to each property.”

The letter includes signatures by Trump’s lawyers and by Trump himself, and it was “acknowledged and accepted” by James Sponable, who was then the Parks Department’s director of real property.

The New York State Attorney General’s office referred questions about the park’s possible renaming to the Parks Department. The Parks Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But legal experts say it isn’t clear how ironclad the terms in the letter are.

“The land is called a gift, so this seems to be memorializing the terms of a gift,” David Reiss, a real estate law specialist at Brooklyn Law School, told PolitiFact. “So, one question is, ‘What’s the enforceability of this letter?’ It’s not obvious to me that this would be analyzed as a contractual dispute.”

Reiss said because the letter does not clearly state that it is a binding contract, it is unclear how a court would treat it if the state were to rename the park and Trump legally challenged it.

“The letter says, ‘We have this understanding,’ but it doesn’t say what would happen if the understanding isn’t held to,” Reiss said. “It doesn’t say what would happen if, at some later time, it changed. There is no promise that the naming would be perpetual. So it’s unclear what Trump’s rights would be to enforce this based on the language of this document.”

Ultimately, Reiss said, “the one sure thing is there could be a lot of litigation about these issues, if the parties chose to litigate.”

A possible plan B

As an alternative, Galef said Trump’s name could be removed from a sign on the Taconic Parkway, which is the most common way for motorists to see it. The letter “doesn’t say you have to have a sign on the Taconic Parkway, … That could come down,” Galef said in the interview.

Reiss, the legal expert, agreed with Galef’s interpretation and said that it might be a feasible option.

“The sign on the Taconic is not the entrance of the park, so you could comply with the letter and still take that sign down,” he said. “It might be confusing to people if you say, ‘Unnamed State Park, next right,” but if you stuck to the black letter of this letter, you could say, ‘Right at the entrance of the park is where we’re going to put the sign, but nowhere before.’”

Non-debt Financing for Home Purchases

Professor Shelby Green

I will be presenting on Non-Debt Financing for Home Purchase: Risks and Promises as part of the ABA’s Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law “Professors’ Corner.”  It will take place at 12:30 PM (Eastern Time) on June 9th.  The program is free for ABA members and non-members alike, although registration is required.  Professor Shelby D. Green of Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law will moderate.  The program description reads:

A new class of financing options is emerging, including non-debt or equity investment, either facilitating the initial purchase with no borrowing or enabling access to equity from existing homeownership. The presenter will discuss whether the surface appeal of these financing inventions may camouflage risks that if not disclosed and well-managed could portend disruption in the housing markets.

Update:  The slides for the presentation can be found here.

Law in The Time of COVID: The Ripple Effect in Real Estate

Dean Michael Cahill

In many ways, COVID-19 has changed the way we live for both the immediate future and long-term. Brooklyn Law School Dean Michael Cahill has been sitting down with members of the Brooklyn Law School faculty to discuss the legal ramifications of our response to COVID-19 and what a post-pandemic world may look like.  Here is the link to our discussion of the effect of the pandemic on the real estate market and beyond: https://youtu.be/j9DFBOsU3qw.

Urban Renewal’s Legacy

photo by Ziggymarley01

I was quoted in The Ledger (Florida) in Seeking Progress, City Upended Lives in Eliminating Moorehead Community. It opens,

After selecting Moorehead as the site of a new auditorium, Lakeland officials began efforts 50 years ago to inform residents, assess properties, make offers to owners and assist residents in finding new places to live.

Dividing the predominantly black neighborhood roughly in half, the city planned to acquire all of the eastern section north of Lime Street by 1971 and the remainder in 1972.

The campaign, which displaced 122 families, fit into a decades-long national phenomenon in which cities partially or completely removed minority neighborhoods for projects aimed at fostering urban renewal.

The American Housing Act of 1949, part of President Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” established the power of governments to seize private property for projects categorized as urban renewal. It also made federal funds available for such projects.

Though intended to replace substandard housing with better options, the Act spurred a flurry of activity that wound up displacing minorities, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and academic program director of The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. Cities used the program’s Title I funding to engage in what was sometimes called “Negro removal” or “slum clearance.”

Before the federal program was halted in 1974, some 2,500 urban renewal projects displaced about 1 million people nationwide, Reiss said.

“Two-thirds of those people were African-American, and if you think about African-Americans being 12 percent of the population, they were being displaced at a multiple, maybe at five times the rate of other Americans and particularly white Americans,” Reiss said. “So urban renewal really reshapes the urban fabric across the country.”

Property in minority communities tended to be cheaper to acquire, especially during the peak period of urban renewal, and Reiss said minorities also were less equipped to challenge authorities.

“It was structural racism on one level, where the majority would find it much easier to displace a black community than they would to displace a white community, although displacement wasn’t only in black communities — but as we see it’s overwhelmingly in black communities,” he said. “Because black communities were often poor, that would be another reason — being in a poor community would give you less political power to fight something like this.”

Does Historic Preservation Limit Affordable Housing?

By Stefan Kühn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9413214

I answer that it can in CQ Researcher’s Historic Preservation:  Can The Past Escape The Wrecking Ball?

Many people fail to realize that land use policies like historic preservation involve big trade-offs. The most important one is that if you want to protect existing structures from demolition and modification, you can’t replace them with bigger ones that could house more people. Consider:

  • Historic preservation equals height and density restrictions. New building technologies (think steel girders and elevators) allow buildings to be built higher as time goes by. If a city landmarks a large percentage of its inner core, it restricts the ability of that core to go higher. This can lead to sprawl, as a growing population is pushed farther and farther from the city center.
  • Historic preservation favors the wealthy. Limited supply drives up housing prices and apartment rents, benefiting owners. And low-income and younger households are likely to suffer, as they are least able to bear the cost of the increases compared to other households. Future residents — think Midwesterners, Southerners and immigrants seeking to relocate to a city like New York for job opportunities — will also suffer.
  • It isn’t easy for historic preservation to be green. It feels environmentally responsible to protect older, low-density buildings in city centers because you have no dusty demolition, no noisy construction. But it actually comes at a big environmental cost. Denser construction reduces reliance on cars and thereby lowers carbon emissions. People living in a dense city have a much smaller carbon footprint than those in a car-oriented suburb.

Just because preservation comes at a cost does not mean it is bad. Much of our past is worth protecting. Some places benefit from maintaining their identities — think of the European cities that draw the most tourists year in and year out. But it is bad to deploy historic preservation indiscriminately, without evaluating the costs it imposes on current residents and potential future ones.

Cities that want to encourage entrepreneurship and affordable housing should deploy historic preservation and other restrictive land use tools thoughtfully. Otherwise, those cities will be inhabited by comparatively rich folks who complain about the sterility of their current lives and who are nostalgic for “the good old days” when cities were diverse and hotbeds of creativity.

If they fail to understand the trade-offs inherent in historic preservation, they won’t even understand that a part of the problem is the very policy they support to “protect” their vision of their community.

In Spite of It All

By Chris Hamby - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrishamby/8294571901, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35347913

Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Most Mind-Boggling Housing Turf Wars Ever—and What They Can Teach Us All. It opens,

Welcome to turf wars! No, it’s not the latest reality TV show—it’s just a way to describe two (or more) parties insisting that a particular piece of property is their own.

Turf wars are as old as the hills, and the existence of people who could lay claim to them. And they’re at the center of some surprisingly fascinating stories of wealth, greed, and pettiness. It seems that no property is too small to inspire a bitter rivalry—including one about the size of a floor lamp—that could go unresolved for decades.

As proof, check out some of the strangest turf tales below, and the lessons we can all learn from them to avoid the same ugly fate.

1. The smallest land grab ever

In Manhattan on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue lies a 500-square-inch piece of private property in the shape of a triangle.

The backstory: In 1910, the city demolished a building owned by David Hess to build a subway, but the surveyors missed this small patch in their measurements. Later on, once this error was discovered, the city asked the Hesses to donate it, but the family refused.

For good measure, the family laid a mosaic reading, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.”

Per the New York Times, it’s “one of the smallest pieces left in private ownership as a result of the cutting through a few years ago of the Seventh Avenue extension. It has been assessed on the tax books for $100.”

In 1938 the family sold this parcel to the cigar shop a few feet behind it for $1,000.

Lesson learned: Land survey mistakes—or not bothering with a survey at all—can cost you big-time!

“If there’s any question about who owns what, it’s better to be safe than sorry and get a good survey done,” says David Reiss, a law professor at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

On a more human level, we can learn this: “Spite is about as powerful as an immovable object,” says Reiss. “If you try to dislodge it, you will in all likelihood lose.”

Skyscraper’s Future up in The Air

skyscrapers

The New York Law Journal quoted me in Upper West Side Skyscraper’s Future Uncertain After NY State Court Ruling. The story opens,

The development at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan is slated to be the tallest building on the Upper West Side, with its 51 stories rivaling the skyscrapers located further downtown.

But whether this will ever happen has now become questionable, after a state court ruling that found city officials were wrong to follow an interpretation of city zoning law used by the developer to achieve the project’s awesome height.

Supreme Court Justice Franc Perry of Manhattan sided with local community groups looking to halt the building underway at the site. The plaintiffs—the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Arts Society of New York—were joined by numerous local state and city elected officials in opposing what they say is not only an out-of-character monster development in the Manhattan neighborhood, but one that relied on a faulty zoning law interpretation to move forward.

“It is finally a declaration that zoning law means something and developers can’t make it up as they go along,” said Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady name attorney Richard Emery, who represented the plaintiffs.

Since 1978, developers and city buildings officials have relied on the so-called Minkin Memo, named after the former head of the city’s Department of Buildings’ Irving Minkin, for guidance on what experts call an ambiguity in the city’s zoning law towards so-called tax lots. These are additional subdivisions of city real estate, which can overlap with or be included inside a zoning lot.

Under the Minkin memo, developers have been able to pull together extra vertical building rights that nearby property owners aren’t using, offering the opportunity to boost the size of a project such as 200 Amsterdam beyond what would normally be allowed.

“The zoning resolution is ambiguous about when a zoning lot can be formed from partial tax lot; it never deals with that problem,” said Stewart Sterk, the Mack Professor of Real Estate Law and director of the Center for Real Estate Law & Policy at the Cardozo School of Law.

Initially, city officials had no problem with the move. DOB issued a permit to the developers for a residential and community facility building at the site of the Lincoln Towers condos on the Upper West Side. The developers relied on the Minkin memo as the basis for the acquisition tax lots that combined partial and whole lots to provide the developers with the vertical building rights needed for their skyscraper.

Shortly after DOB green lighted the project, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development challenged the DOB’s decision. The challenge snowballed, and soon seemingly every local elected official, from state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to borough president Gale Brewer, were opposed to the plan. The project’s permit was appealed by both CESD and the Municipal Arts Society to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

In March 208, DOB made an official about-face on the project. In a letter from assistant general counsel to the BSA, the department said the Minkin memo provided an incorrect interpretation and that zoning regulations did not in fact intend for zoning lots to consist of partial tax lots.

The BSA was not persuaded by the arguments and in July 2018 voted 3-1 not to grant the appeal, with one board member abstaining. The plaintiffs soon after pursued a review of the BSA’s decision in state Supreme Court.

In subjecting the developers’ permit to further review, Perry pointedly took issue with BSA view of the process.

“BSA found that the Subject Zoning lot is ‘unsubdivided,’ within the meaning of the [New York City Zoning Resolution], simply because Developer has declared it to be so,” the judge wrote.

Noting that the referenced law states that a zoning lot is defined by being “unsubdivided” within a single block, Perry said BSA’s interpretation would render the term “superfluous,” and run “afoul of elementary rules of statutory construction.”

Since DOB saw the light on the Minkin memo during the appeal process, the court said the department’s statutory basis for the issuance of the permit to begin with was undermined. BSA’s decision was nullified and vacated, and the board was directed to review the project’s permit application “in accordance with the plain language” of the zoning regulation and Perry’s order.

As Cordozo’s Sterk noted, the development at 200 Amsterdam was far from the first to use the Milkin memo to justify partial tax lot usage in a building plan. Perry’s decision has the ability to throw uncertainty around zoning and building issues into a business sector highly adverse to such things, Sterk said.

But just as important for Sterk is the question now of when a government agency becomes estopped from changing its mind after it’s already induced people to rely on its existing interpretation.

“That’s a big problem in this case, because clearly developers have put millions of dollars into this project in reliance on an existing interpretation,” he said.

Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who is the research director of the school’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, said he saw the case as less of a “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic as much as one of whether the assurances of government officials can be binding.

“There’s a reliance on government statements and government permissions,” Reiss said, while noting the project has already commenced.

Should the case stand, he predicted it would serve to rattle developers’ confidence in their dealings with the city going forward.

“It’s more uncertainty in a process that’s already pretty uncertain,” he said.