NYU Case Update: Court of Appeals Rejects Public Trust Doctrine

We are writing to provide an update on the NYU Expansion case. We previously covered the litigation on this matter in a blog post from February 2015, which can be read here.

By way of background, New York University (NYU) received approval from the New York City Council to expand its campus. The project involved de-mapping certain areas currently designated as streets on City maps and using them, either permanently or for some part of 20 years, in connection with construction of new buildings. The four disputed parcels (Mercer Playground, LaGuardia Park, LaGuardia Corner Gardens and the mercer- Houston Dog Run) featured open space that has been available to the public for years.

Petitioners brought an Article 78 proceeding requesting an injunction and declaration the the project was unlawful because it required the alienation of implied public parkland, which is protected under the public trust doctrine. Under the public trust doctrine,  a land owner cannot alienate land that has been impliedly dedicated to a public use without obtaining the approval of the legislature.

The Petitioners were successful at the Supreme Court but the Appellate Division reversed, concluding that “petitioners … failed to meet their burden of showing that the City’s acts and declarations manifested a present, fixed, and unequivocal intent to dedicate any of the parcels at issue as public parkland.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision, holding that Petitioners failed to meet the first prong of a two-prong test: they did not show that the “acts and declarations by the land owner indicating the intent to dedicate his land to the public use [are] unmistakable in their purpose and decisive in their character to have the effect of a dedication.” The court did not reach the second prong (that the public has accepted the land as dedicated to a public use).

In ruling so, the Court pointed to lease language and memoranda of understanding between the City and the respective parks, which had restrictive terms showing that the City permitted park like purposes, but had “no intention of permanently giving up control of the property.”

The Court of Appeals’ full decision can be read by clicking here.

Posted in New York, NYU Expansion, Public Parkland
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