Eminent Domain May Be Used To Preserve Farmland

An important decision on the scope of eminent domain was reached this week. On Tuesday the Second Department held that a Town’s power of eminent domain may be used to preserve farmland in Matter of Aspen Cr. Estates, Ltd. v Town of Brookhaven, 2007 NY Slip Op 09583. The property at issue in the case was a 39-acre parcel of farmland  located in a portion of the Town of Brookhaven known as the “Manorville Farmland Protection Area.” The Manorville Farmland Protection Area was an approximately 500-acre working farm belt which was the largest and most contiguous belt of productive agricultural land remaining in the Town.The petitioner Aspen Creek Estates, Ltd. purchased the property for residential development.

After hearings conducted pursuant to the Eminent Domain Procedure Law, the Town Board approved the condemnation of the property, and declared that the property was being acquired, among other things, to preserve open space and agricultural resources, protect and promote continuation of agriculture in the Town, ensure the continued sale of fresh, locally grown produce, and prevent conflicts between residential homeowners and adjacent farmers. The Board also found that preserving the property would “have a positive impact on the environment and surrounding community by ensuring the protection of scenic vistas and the rural character of the area, and helping to achieve the protection of the 500-acre Manorville Farm Protection Area, a high priority preservation target.”

Aspen Creek challenged the condemnation, inter alia, on the grounds that there was no public purpose for the condemnation and that its true intent was to take the subject property to lease to private farmers.

The Second Department rejected Aspen Creek’s challenge. The Court found that the preservation of farmland clearly conferred a benefit upon the public, since it enables residents of the Town to enjoy locally grown produce and scenic views. In addition, the Court stated that the preservation of farmland was in keeping with the declared public policy of this state to “promote, foster, and encourage the agricultural industry” (Agriculture and Markets Law § 3), and to acquire interests and rights in real property for the preservation of open space and enhancement of natural resources, including agricultural lands (see General Municipal Law § 247[1]).

The Court also rejected Aspen Creek assertion that the taking was unconstitutional because the true purpose of the taking was to bestow a private benefit on certain individuals. Aspen Creek argued that the Town was trying to take its private property to allow a private individual other than the present owner to use it as a farm, and/or to block further development in order to increase the value and appeal of already existing homes.

The Court stated that the mere fact that condemnation will provide incidental benefits to private individuals does not invalidate the condemnor’s determination as long as the public purpose is dominant. The Court found that there was no evidence in the record as to how the Town intended to use the property after the acquisition. In any event, the Court found that the possibility that the Town may sell or lease the land to a farmer did not make the proposed condemnation a pretext for improperly conferring a private benefit. It noted that the land had been continuously farmed for more than a century before Aspen Creek purchased it for development purposes. And since allowing farming to continue on the property was fully consistent with the purpose of this condemnation, the fact that one or more individual farmers may benefit was merely incidental, and did not render the public benefit to be achieved by condemnation illusory. In addition, the record was completely devoid of evidence that the proposed condemnation was motivated by a desire to increase the property value of existing homes in Manorville, and, in any event, any increase in property values would similarly be an incidental benefit.

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