Willets Point Property Owners Vow to Continue Legal Challenge Against City

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Property owners in Willets Point, Queens, under threat of losing their land by eminent domain as the city makes way for a redevelopment of the area, vowed to reopen a legal case they lost last year.

At an emotionally charged public hearing in Flushing Wednesday, property owners and their attorneys said the city has reneged on a legally binding promise not to take over land without state and federal approval for new highway ramps to alleviate traffic in the area.

Tom McKnight, who oversees the Willets Point project at the city’s Economic Development Corporation, testified at the hearing that the city was proceeding to redevelop the 62-acre site in phases due to current economic conditions. He said the ramps would not be completed during the first phase because other infrastructure needs, such as cleanup of the contaminated site and adding sewer and water lines, take higher priority.

“The completion of the new connections to the Van Wyck Expressway is not necessary for the initial development phase and thus may be deferred until after completion of phase one,” said McKnight.

That’s where the city violates a binding pledge it made last summer to a state judge, said Michael Gerrard, a lawyer representing a number of business owners. He added that the city’s new plan to build in phases is impermissible without additional environmental impact reviews, and he was seeking to reopen the case in the state Supreme Court.

In addition to the ramps issue, many business and property owners criticized the city’s plan to acquire privately owned property by eminent domain, if necessary, for what they say is a private project. Janice Serrone said property owners like her have not gotten a fair shake from the city in the long neglected neighborhood.

"The developers are going to get a 30-year tax abatement, meanwhile we've been paying taxes for 30 years and have gotten absolutely no services," said Serrone. "Give us our streets and sewers and we'll continue to pay our taxes and develop what rightfully belongs to us."

But backers of the plan, including representatives of business groups, labor unions and environmental advocates, emphasized the economic and environmental benefits at the Wednesday hearing. Dan Hendrick with the New York League of Conservation Voters said the project is the neighborhood’s best chance to get cleaned up.

“The simple fact of the matter is that every day that the contamination is allowed to remain underneath Willets Point, is another day that Flushing Creek and Flushing Bay are made worse,” said Hendrick.

“Rather than wasting time pointing fingers of blame as to how that condition was allowed to develop, we need to stay focused on the unique economic development opportunities this area allows,” said Jack Friedman, executive vice president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

Wednesday's public hearing was the only one legally required by the state’s eminent domain procedure, but the public has until March 18 to submit written comments.