Mr. Rikon’s most recent NYLJ, available by clicking here, discusses the public trust doctrine and recent New York cases involving challenges to public parklands. As Mr. Rikon writes, the parks are protected by the public trust doctrine, which was adopted by the States from well-established English Law. The landmark case was Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, 146 US 387 (1892). In that case, the Illinois legislature had granted most of the Chicago harbor to the railroad. The Supreme Court held that the State held title to the land underneath the navigable waters of Lake Michigan in trust for the public and could not convey the land in a way that would destroy the public’s right of navigation and fishing in the waters.
In New York, there are two important Court of Appeals cases regarding the public trust doctrine. The first is Marba Sea By Corp v. Clinton Street Realty Corp., which invalidated the grant of eleven miles of foreshore (the entire oceanfront of Queens) to a private person. The NY Court of Appeals stated that when the State holds title “incident and part of its sovereignty”, it cannot surrender such title except for some public purpose “or some reasonable use which can fairly be said to be for the public benefit.”
Then in Friends of Van Cortlandt Park v City of New York, the Court of Appeals held that the City could not build a water treatment plant without legislative approval because such use would be a “non-park use” in violation of the public trust doctrine. The Court relied heavily on Williams v. Fallatin, 229 NY 248 (1920), in reaching its decision. In Williams, the Court explained that a park is a recreational pleasure area set aside to promote public health and welfare. As such:
no objects, however worthy. . . which have no connection with public purposes, should be permitted to encroach upon (parkland) without legislative authority plainly conferred.
The article also discusses the two recent cases causing a stir in New York City. The First Department recently decided Matter of Glick v Harvey on October 14, 2014. It reversed Justice Donna M. Mills’s Order which enjoined New York University from beginning construction in connection of its expansion project because it would result in any alienation of three parcels of land found by the Court to be public parkland without State legislature authorization. The area in question is about 2 million square feet of new facilities in Greenwich Village. The plaintiffs had opposed the construction, arguing that areas on the blocks were used for recreational purposes. The City had refused various requests to have the streets de-mapped and designated as parkland. The First Department held that an “implied dedication may exist when the municipality’s acts and declarations manifest a present, fixed and unequivocal intent to dedicate. (citations omitted).”
Finally, as noted previously on our blog, the Court of appeals decided Union Square Park Community Coalition, Inc v New York City Parks & Recreation, 2014 NY LEXIS 205 (2014). Therein the Court allowed a restaurant to be constructed in Union Square Park, noting that Plaintiff’s challenge to the proposed use amounted only to a “difference of opinion as to the best way to use the park space” and was not a demonstration of illegality.