New York courts have long held that the “public trust” doctrine precludes the use of dedicated parkland for non-park uses. The New York Court of Appeals showed just how strictly that doctrine is applied when, after many years of planning and litigation, it enjoined development of a retail entertainment complex known as Willets West in the Citi Field parking lot, the baseball stadium that is home to the New York Mets. The June 6 opinion showed that the public trust doctrine is alive and well in New York State and can create havoc for development projects on land that is located within a state or municipal park, regardless of its current use.

Factual Background of the Case

This case arises out of a 2011 proposed development, coined “Willets West,” which would be built on a Citi Field parking lot where Shea Stadium once stood.[1] This project would have included restaurants, shops, public performance spaces, meeting places, and a rooftop farm for educational purposes.[2] The development aimed to revitalize the underdeveloped Willets Point area of Queens which currently does not have sewers, sidewalks, or streetlights, and has long been considered to be “blighted.”[3]

Plaintiffs—which included State Senator Tony Avella, non-profit organizations, businesses, and taxpayers—brought a hybrid CPLR Article 78 proceeding in the New York State Supreme Court after the City approved the development plan for Willets West in May, 2012.[4]  The claim alleged that because the Willets West development was to be located on parkland, the public trust doctrine required direct legislative authorization, which had not been granted.[5]

The public trust doctrine holds that New York State parkland is dedicated to public use and is held, “in trust for that purpose”[6]; it can only be alienated and used for non-park purposes if expressly authorized by the State legislature.[7]  The dispute here centers on whether non-park uses of the property were previously authorized by the legislature in Section 18-118 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York, enacted in 1961.[8]  This statute provided for, among other things, the financing and use of a municipal athletic stadium within Flushing Meadows Park; later named Shea Stadium.[9]

The New York Court of Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals majority opinion—written by Judge Rowan Wilson and joined by four other judges—looks first to the plain language of Section 18-118(a), which grants the City the right to, “enter into contracts, leases or rental agreements” with persons wishing “to use, occupy or carry on activities in the whole or any part of the stadium, with appurtenant grounds, parking areas, and other facilities.”[10] The majority concluded that this language did not authorize construction of a “shopping mall,” but rather allows the city to enter into agreements permitting others to use the stadium and its appurtenant facilities.[11] Judge Wilson further stated that the term “appurtenant” refers to facilities “related to, part of, belonging to, or serving some purpose for the stadium itself,” and thus does not authorize the construction of a retail complex.[12]  The majority relied on legislative history and the title of the statute—“Renting of a stadium in Flushing Meadow Park…”—in finding that the list of authorized purposes in Section 18-118(b)(1) pertain only to the renting of the stadium.[13] Judge Wilson concluded by acknowledging that the remediation of Willets Point is a “laudable goal,” however Defendants lacked the direct and specific legislative authority to proceed with the Willets West development.[14]

In a rare sole dissent by the Chief Judge of the court, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore asserted that the legislature had directly and specifically authorized non-park uses of this “alienated” parkland, as codified in Section 18-118.[15] The judge stated that subdivision (a) of the statute directly authorizes non-park uses, and that subdivision (b) specifically listed the allowable purposes­ which include recreation, education, and the improvement of trade and commerce.[16] Additionally, she relied on Black’s Law Dictionary to support her interpretation of ‘appurtenant grounds’ as referencing any adjunct or additional acreage around the stadium.[17] The dissenting opinion further supported this position with legislative and social history showing that the statute is broadly worded, and that public markets such as Willets West are common in conjunction with athletic stadiums.[18]  Judge DiFiore concluded by stating that the majority’s narrow reading of Section 18-118, “…disregards the prescient and forward-looking nature of the statutory language.”[19]

This ruling reveals a virtually absolutist application of the public trust doctrine in New York State, and the reluctance of New York’s highest court to expand or grant any exceptions to authorized uses of New York State parkland without specific state legislation authorizing such uses. In this case the “parkland” at issue had functioned as a baseball stadium or accessory parking since the early 1960s. The ruling’s discussion of a “retail mall,” seemingly divorced from the baseball stadium, ignored the documented tendency of recent ballpark construction to include as accessory uses restaurants, retail, and other entertainment uses. This strict interpretation of the prior legislation makes clear that any developer seeking to convince government to use parkland for non-park uses must strongly consider the likelihood of obtaining authorizing legislation for such development as New York courts will likely be reluctant to permit such uses in the absence of specific authorizing legislation.

Katarina Varriale* contributed to this blog post.

*Not admitted to the practice of law.

[1] Pg. 2

[2] Pg. 4 (Dissent)

[3] Pg. 3

[4] Pg. 4

[5] Pg. 4

[6] Pg. 5

[7] Pg. 1 (Dissent)

[8] Pg. 5, 7, 1 (Dissent)

[9] Pg. 2

[10] Pg. 9-10

[11] Pg. 10

[12] Pg. 12

[13] Pg. 15

[14] Pg. 19

[15] Pg. 1 (Dissent), pg. 6 (Dissent)

[16] Pg. 9 (Dissent)

[17] Pg. 8 (Dissent)

[18] Pg. 15-16 (Dissent)

[19] Pg. 18 (Dissent)