Court of Appeals April-May Session: Arguments of Interest for April 25, 2017

The Court of Appeals’ April-May Session begins on Tuesday, April 25th with the Court on a road trip to Westchester County.  As the Court regularly does throughout the year, the first week of arguments for the April-May Session will be heard at the Richard J. Daranco Westchester County Courthouse.  Three cases are on the argument docket today (the Court of Appeals’ case summaries can be found here). The Court will address the following issues: (1) whether a union representing New York City employees brought up on disciplinary charges is entitled to disclosure to records concerning the charges and what kind of deference is owed to the administrative agency’s determination of that issue; (2) whether the redevelopment of the former Shea Stadium parkland as a shopping center would violate the public trust doctrine because the uses would expand what was originally intended by the Legislature; and (3) whether a criminal defendant was properly denied a cross-racial identification jury charge.

No. 54 Matter of Avella v City of New York

Under the public trust doctrine, land that has been granted as a public park may not be used for any other purpose without the Legislature saying that the proposed non-parkland use is acceptable.  In Avella, the Legislature did just that to allow the construction of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens—a place of great torture for Mets fans (save for one magical year in 1986).  Particularly, in 1961, the State Legislature enacted section 18-118 of the New York City Administrative Code to allow the stadium to be built in the park.  The question in this case is whether that statutory authorization permits the redevelopment of the Shea Stadium site for “public” uses not related to the stadium.

After the construction of Citi Field next door, Shea Stadium was demolished and the owner proposed to redevelop the site as “Willets West”—a retail mall and movie theater.  Opponents of the project sued to stop the proposal, arguing that the redevelopment of the Shea Stadium site as a shopping center, which has not been approved by the State Legislature, would violate the public trust doctrine.  The opponents argued that section 18-118 was intended to authorize the construction of the sports stadium, not a shopping mall.  The developers and the City countered that a number of public uses of the site were permitted under the section, including recreation, entertainment, and commerce.

Agreeing with the developers and the City, Supreme Court dismissed the opponents’ suit, holding that section 18-118(b) authorized the shopping center proposal because it would benefit trade and commerce.  That, the Court held, was what the Legislature intended when it enacted section 18-118, and the redevelopment of the blighted Willets Point West as a mixed use community was well within the Legislature’s goals.

The Appellate Division, First Department didn’t find the legislative authorization so broad, however.  Instead, the First Department held, the “overriding context of [section] 18-118 concerns the stadium to be built in the portion of the park delineated therein…. Its focus is on the stadium, and on the stadium only.”  Expanding the authorized uses under section 18-118 to include a shopping center was well beyond the limited scope of what the Legislature contemplated and approved in 1961, the Court held.  The First Department, therefore, reversed and declared that the Willets West proposal would violate the public trust doctrine.

The Court of Appeals will now decide.  Was the legislative authorization for Shea Stadium limited to professional sporting entertainment only?  Or can the redevelopment of the blighted area fall within section 18-118’s intent?  The scope of the public trust doctrine hangs in the balance.

The Appellate Division, First Department’s order can be found here.

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