No eminent domain

The Adirondack Experience owns this property with the stone retaining wall on Main Street in downtown Lake Placid, next to a village parking lot. The village wants to take the land by eminent domain and build a parking garage there. (Enterprise photo — Matthew Turner)

There’s no question that Lake Placid’s bustling downtown needs more parking. And while people disagree on where that should be, the idea of building a parking garage in place of a village lot on Main Street, across from NBT Bank, has kept coming up for well over a decade.

Now the village government is pursuing that option more seriously than before. We’re glad to see some action on that front.

But not by eminent domain.

Eminent domain is a process by which a government body takes private property without the owner(s)’s consent but with fair market compensation, as settled by a judge. It used to be used only for public works, such as this parking garage, but in the 2000s, government bodies began using it on behalf of private, for-profit developers who couldn’t reach a deal otherwise. We strongly oppose this latter use.

Even for public works projects, we see eminent domain as an ugly last resort, and we don’t see the Lake Placid situation as being nearly that desperate.

The village wants to acquire the property next door to its parking lot to incorporate it into the new garage. That makes sense. The land once housed a Nazarene church and its pastor’s residence, but they were demolished after the Adirondack Museum (now renamed Adirondack Experience) bought the property in 2007. For the last decade, the site has been vacant.

The museum planned to build a satellite branch here, which would have been wonderful. Many people, including us, liked the bold architecture designed by David Childs, who also designed One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, but the local review board didn’t like it, and a neighbor sued because it would have blocked his view. One of two $500,000 state grants dried up. And then the recession hit. The museum bailed in 2008.

The museum wants to sell this land, and the village wants to buy it. The only reason eminent domain is in the works is that they couldn’t agree on a price.

That’s not a good enough reason.

It’s not like the village will necessarily get its desired price through eminent domain. A judge will decide what a fair market value is. The two sides could reach a compromise on their own if they haggled a little more; they might also save a lot of headache and lawyers’ fees.

Granted, this isn’t eminent domain at its worst — stripping people of land that’s been in their family for generations, that they don’t want to sell — but it’s still an abusive and often lazy way for government to do business. When the village wants to buy a truck and can’t agree on the price with the dealer, it can’t just go to court and make a judge pick the price. It has to do what everyone else who buys and sells things does.

Up to now, the museum has enjoyed a strong bargaining position. Because it avoided paying local property taxes due to its nonprofit status, it could afford to sit on this vacant lot. But now that’s changing, and museum officials are calling it dirty pool.

Town of North Elba Assessor Todd Anthony has just taken away that tax-exempt status, saying it’s not legal if no museum will be built there. He also reduced the property’s assessment from $1.18 million to $850,000, which, according to outraged museum officials, is right around what the village wanted to pay for it.

Museum officials are threatening to sue. They say the town assessor colluded with village officials to help the village get this land.

Timing-wise, it doesn’t look bad for the municipalities. Anthony, in his third year on the job, denies he colluded with village officials and said his actions were in the works for a long time as part of a revaluation of all the town’s parcels. He says they just happened to take effect at the same time as the village’s land grab.

Maybe, maybe not — we’ll leave that to the court, if it comes to that. We do tend to agree the tax-exempt status has overstayed its welcome.

We urge the village of Lake Placid to back out of this eminent domain procedure. A deal will happen if both sides want one badly enough to put in the hard work of negotiating. If not, the museum could look for another buyer and the village for another parking site.