The following letter to the editor was submitted and written in its entirety by Peekskill resident and Republican Party district leader Matt Witchger.
The Common Council’s decision to consider invoking eminent domain to secure a site for a new central firehouse underscores the poor judgment which has guided this project.
As the city’s Corporation Counsel Bernis Nelson stated a couple weeks ago, the Common Council has exploited legal loopholes to avoid subjecting the project to the level of public scrutiny it merits. The project was not put out to competitive bid. The study of renovating existing firehouses was conducted by the same company that stands to profit from new construction, and its assumptions that the soft costs and contingency budget for renovation far exceeds those for new construction have never been scrutinized.
When a doctor recommends major surgery, the patient is inclined to get a second opinion. When a consulting firm proposes that the city spend more than $15.68 million on a project – an amount equal to nearly half of the city’s annual budget – it behooves the council to get a second opinion that would expose, for example, the rosy assumptions regarding land acquisition costs.
Given the lack of thoughtfulness and caution with which this project has proceeded, it is arguable that the Council’s alleged “public use” could better be satisfied at a different location. In fact, the “Fire Station Location Study” says that the proposed location is merely “good,” not ideal, and not even “central,” as the proposed firehouse is misnamed. The implication is that there are other good locations where the city would not have to exercise eminent domain to acquire the land required for construction.
Even if we assume that building a firehouse in the middle of the business district on one of the City’s most heavily travelled roads is the ideal location, which I do not believe it is, this still begs the question as to what “just compensation” the owners of the buildings the City wants to seize are owed under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Mr. Justice Holmes said in 1910, “just compensation” is determined with reference to what the owner has lost. The owner of 1141 Main Street, Gerardo Escandon, paid $485,000 for his property on Sept. 9, 2005. In addition, the city forced him to spend an additional $150,000 to $200,000 upgrading his windows to conform to the Historic Code of the Downtown, a designation, ironically, which the Council has since repealed in order to set the stage for eminent domain.
Mr. Escandon must be paid at least $635,000 for his building – his purchase price plus whatever the cost of capital improvements the City required him to spend. By law, the city cannot force him to take an unrecoverable capital loss without subjecting itself to a lawsuit it will most certainly lose.
As to the owners of the Crossroads Plaza, they have a competing valuation for their land and buildings, far in excess of what the city wants to pay. At best, this creates a triable issue of fact regarding what “Just compensation” is for these owners, something only a court can decide.
The council’s lack of a rational approach to a project of this scope and magnitude demonstrates that they and the city are looking for polite cover to impose on taxpayers a top-down, government-driven scheme – the very type of project this council campaigned it would never enact.
Should the city invoke eminent domain, in all likelihood, the property owners will sue and tie up the project in the courts beyond the current mayor’s term. Hopefully, this will provide the chance for sounder judgment to be exercised in addressing the needs of our firefighters.
Matt Witchger of Peekskill
Republican Party District Leader