Spitzer Wins Major Parkland Protection Case

Attorney General Spitzer praised a decision issued today by the New York Court of Appeals, in which the court declared that parkland is protected from any non-park use absent specific approval of the New York State Legislature.

"This is a clear victory for parkland preservation," Spitzer said. "The State Legislature historically has protected parks from improper intrusions, and this decision ensures that it will continue to be able to do so in the future."

The specific project at issue in the case involves a proposal to build a water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. As a result of a federal court lawsuit brought in 1997, the federal and state governments reached an agreement with New York City to build a filtration plant for that portion of the City's water supply drawn from the Croton Watershed. Despite a long history of cases that require legislative approval before parkland can be used for non-park purposes, and a specific clause in the agreement requiring such approval, New York City refused to seek that approval when it decided to locate the plant in Van Cortlandt Park.

Spitzer sought enforcement of the requirement for legislative approval of this use of parkland in federal court. The lower court, however ruled against the Attorney General, holding that in this case state legislative approval was not needed. The State appealed and the federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit referred the matter to the New York State Court of Appeals since it was an matter of important state law.

Today, in a 7-0 decision written by the Court's Chief Judge, Judith Kaye, the Court of Appeals concluded that legislative approval was needed before the plant could be built in a park. The Court noted that the Mosholou Golf Course Driving Range, the chosen site for the plant, and the surrounding golf course in Van Cortlandt Park would be closed for more than five years while the plant was being built. The plant itself would occupy more than 10 acres of parkland, and would limit future uses of the park in and around where it would be built. An additional 16 acres of parkland would be off limits to the public during the five year construction period.

The Court rejected New York City's argument that placing two feet of dirt on top of the plant for use as a driving range and burying substantial portions of it exempted the plant from the historical need to obtain legislative approval.

The Court stated that: "Our law is well settled: dedicated park areas in New York are impressed with a public trust for the benefit of the people of the State. Their 'use for other than park purposes, either for a period of years or permanently, requires the direct and specific approval of the State Legislature, plainly conferred.'"

"Parks play a vital role in enhancing our quality of life and preserving open space, particularly in cities. Because parks are often the only large remaining open spaces in urban areas, they are frequently targeted for various municipal projects, " Spitzer said. "While these projects may be very worthy, the state has a long standing policy of barring development without specific legislative approval."

New York City has performed comprehensive environmental impact statements studying eight possible sites in the Bronx and Westchester County, including others in local parks. The city found that the Van Cortlandt Park site would have the least adverse environmental impact and argued that the plant has been carefully designed to limit its impact on the park.

If the city chooses to move ahead with this site, it must seek specific approval from the State Legislature. Spitzer urged state lawmakers to review the environmental impact statement as part of their review and to move quickly on this matter.

The case was handled by Deputy Chief Gordon J. Johnson and Assistant Attorney General Norman Spiegel, under the supervision of the Bureau Chief, Peter Lehner, with the assistance of Assistant Solicitor General Peter Crary.