New York’s Highest Court Upholds Taking of Private Property for Pipeline that Might Never Get Built
On Thursday, the New York Court of Appeals (which is that state’s highest court) issued a decision in National Fuel Gas Supply Corp. v. Schueckler, upholding the use of eminent domain to seize private property for a pipeline that might never get built. Robert Thomas, a prominent takings lawyer, has a helpful summary at the Inverse Condemnation blog:
A private pipeline company obtained a certificate of public convenience from [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission]. Under the Natural Gas Act, FERC may issue such certificates conditioned on the applicant meeting the Clean Water Act’s requirement of obtaining state environmental check off on the project. The pipeline needed an easement across Schuecker’s land, and began the condemnation process under New York law. It attached to its condemnation petition the conditional FERC certificate.
Schuecker objected, asserting that the FERC certificate was no good, because the pipeline had not met the condition: it had not certified to FERC that it had received all state approvals (as required by the federal Natural Gas Act). Indeed, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had denied the pipeline’s water quality certification. The pipeline responded that it was seeking reconsideration with FERC, and that the NYDEC could not deny water quality certification because it was too late to do so. The trial court agreed with the pipeline, but the appellate department reversed…
In National Fuel Gas Supply Corp. v. Schueckler, No. 29 (June 25, 2020), the court’s majority agreed with the pipeline, and concluded that the FERC certificate was good enough, and the pipeline fulfilled the requirements of New York’s eminent domain statute. That statute exempts a condemnor from making findings about public use and environmental impact of the taking if it obtains a certificate of public convenience from a federal or state agency considering “factors similar” to these.…
Yeah, the FERC certificate was conditional, but it really wasn’t “conditional” in a way that would interfere with the processing of an eminent domain case. See slip op. at 13. The pipeline can’t actually build anything, but it can take property.
The majority recognizes that both the federal and state constitutions mandate that eminent domain can only be used to take property for a “public use,” which both the New York Court of Appeals and the federal Supreme Court define broadly to cover almost any project that benefits the public. But the Court of Appeals concluded that the pipeline satisfies this standard, despite the fact that it might never actually get built:
To be sure, the Appellate Division’s concern that the power of eminent domain should be exercised only for viable projects is legitimate; both our state and federal constitutions permit the taking of property by eminent domain only for public use (see NY Constitution art I, § 7; US Constitution, Fifth Amendment)… and any exercise of eminent domain involves a careful balancing of the interests of property owners, the community, and the public use to be served (see EDPL 101). However, in enacting the statutory exemption set forth in EDPL 206 (A), the legislature recognized that eminent domain is, at its core, intended to advance public works and that, in connection with such public projects, government agencies may often render determinations of public use that typically need not be replicated. Where, as here, a state or federal agency has determined
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