Court rules in favor of protecting parkland

The NYS Court of Appeals ruled that the State Legislature must pass specific legislation to authorize development of a mall on 30 acres of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. PTNY joined Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club in submitting an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on this important park alienation court case that could have broad implications for protection of parkland.

In a 6-1 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that NYC and a Queens developer lacked the legal authority to develop the mall, rejecting arguments that a 1961 law that authorized the construction of Shea Stadium at Flushing Meadows Park also allowed the development of the mall 55 years later.

In the ruling, Judge Rowan Wilson wrote for the majority, “The text of the statute and its legislative history flatly refute the proposition that the Legislature granted the city the authority to construct a development such as Willets West in Flushing Meadows Park.”

In order for the mall project to move forward the court said that the state Legislature must pass “direct and specific legislation” that authorizes the park land to be used for that purpose.

PTNY believes this was an important park alienation (the taking of parkland for other uses) court case that sets a precedent for decades to come that parkland can be easily given away.

A copy of the opinion can be viewed here.

Parkland alienation in NYS: some background

Although we like to think that park lands are sacrosanct, they can be lost or carved up for other uses, like cell towers or municipal garages. It’s called “park alienation” – the taking of parkland for non-park use.

When that happens in New York State, the general principle is that the lost recreational space is supposed to be replaced, one way or another. This is a reflection of what legal scholars call the “public trust doctrine,” literally dating all the way back to the Roman Empire, which holds that lands, waters, shorelines and other resources held by the public cannot be given away.

But it doesn’t always work that way in practice. Perhaps because the basic legal principle is so ancient, the carving up of municipal parklands is governed by a mishmash of case-by-case laws and court decisions in New York State. There are documented instances in which municipalities have replaced lost parklands with parcels of less value – and sometimes, with nothing at all.

So the taking of parkland for non-park use is a problem, especially in dense urban areas where land is scarce. Takings have run the gamut from using parkland for other municipal services, such as water filtration, sanitation, and parking lots, to outright selling of parkland for private development. Just in the last few years, takings have been approved to allow for the development of an apartment complex, the construction of an air remediation tower, and the possible development of a package distribution center. Each single instance may seem to have only a limited, local impact, but multiple takings over time result in a significant whittling away of precious community parkland.

The courts have tried to uphold the principle that before taking parkland for non-park use, a municipality must get permission from the Legislature. In most such cases, the Legislature has required the municipalities to either provide replacement parkland or dedicate funding toward the acquisition of additional parkland or park improvements.

Parkland is vital to the sustainability and resiliency of local communities and the health and quality of life of all New Yorkers. Whether it’s a wooded picnic area or a ball field, the local parks we grow up with create lasting memories and cement our relationship with the outdoors.

PTNY is leading the effort in the state to codify the public trust doctrine, provide for greater government transparency and accountability, and protect community parkland from death by a thousand cuts.