County prepares for eminent domain in Utica hospital project
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Oneida County is getting ready to start eminent domain proceedings against property owners whose parcels sit in the footprint of a planned parking garage in Utica, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. said.
The garage, to be located at Oriskany, Lafayette and Cornelia streets, will provide parking for the general public and for the Mohawk Valley Health System hospital being built across Lafayette Street from the garage.
“Obviously, our process is moving forward,” Picente said. “We have four parcels that are in question. We have had contact with one of them. The other three have either not contacted or not answered, or have answered in the negative. We’re in the process of preparing that and would look at probably heading into court in the next couple weeks as soon as we get all of our pieces in to place.”
The move to eminent domain was slowed by the closure of the courts at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Picente said.
Picente said the county has had some discussion with Angela Elefante, who owns the Oriskany Street property on which Enterprise Rent-A-Car is located.
Joe Cerini, owner of Citation Services on Lafayette Street, wrote back to decline the county’s purchase offer, he said. And the county hasn’t had a response from Brett Truett, who owns a house on Lafayette Street, and Dennis Corrigan, who owns a vacant lot in the garage footprint, Picente said.
The Mohawk Valley Health System already owns all of the parcels in the footprint of the hospital — between Lafayette, Columbia and State streets, and Broadway — where construction is underway.
It also plans to use land across Columbia and State streets from the hospital for construction of a central utility plant, a medical office building and parking lots.
In that area, the health system also has purchased all but four properties, a spokeswoman said. The health system is still negotiating with one property owner, but the other three properties will be acquired by eminent domain, she said. But unlike the four properties in the garage footprint, the city of Utica will take on the eminent domain process for these properties.
The health system will reimburse the county and the city for any properties acquired through eminent domain, she said.
The city’s Urban Renewal Agency is still hoping to purchase all the properties through negotiation, according to city officials. No steps will be taken toward eminent domain until negotiations reach an impasse, they said.
Truett, a leader of the #NoHospitalDowntown (#NHD) group who has said he bought his building specifically to fight the hospital project, said he hadn’t heard that the county was definitely moving forward with eminent domain.
“For years it seemed a useful threat to intimidate and clear-out property owners for what I’ve always believe to be a politically corrupt project and not what’s best for Utica-area health care,” he said via email.
Both he and Cerini, another #NHD member, will continue to hold out, he said.
“We want to save and redevelop our properties with historical preservation in mind,” Truett said in the email. “We’ve thought that maybe one day we’d receive a call from NBBJ (the hospital’s architects). They stated they’d ‘make the new hospital fit into the neighborhood’, so maybe they’d find a different way to design the hospital grounds? We believe our properties offer Utica a great way to do it.”
When asked for comment, Cerini sent a copy of a letter he sent to county solicitor Peter Rayhill.
“A parcel already owned by the city/ county or land whose owner is willing to sell should be considered prior to forcibly taking a contested site whose owner resists the governments desires,” he wrote. “There are alternative sites available. I would go even further and say there should never be a forcible taking of private property by the government, especially for use for another private entity. No government or entity is so important they should usurp my rights or that of any individual.”
Cerini then went on to accuse the county of using eminent domain simply to get the property for a lower price than he is willing to accept.
“You could make a much higher offer in hopes I would sell it,” Cerini wrote. “At some price point I may agree to sell it. Perhaps that price would be way above market value, but that is how much I value my property and that is my prerogative. Stealing it at a lower cost is stealing; the difference is theft.”
Cerini has spoken in the past about how much labor he’s put into renovating his building, about the difficulty and expense of moving all the equipment he stores in the building and about the cost of finding another building with equivalent square footage.
Paying for the garage
The parking garage is being built by Oneida County. Originally, it was to be funded by Oneida County and Utica, with a 60-40 split and operated and maintained by the health system.
“It’s still under discussion,” Picente said. “We continue to talk. It’s 60-40, but there’s still a hospital component to it as well.”
Final determinations need to be made on the garage’s design, size and number of parking spots, and exactly how many of those spots will be reserved for the health system, Picente said.
“Once we have all of that in hand and have the proper estimate, we can drill down to the cost sharing,” he said.
Final decisions haven’t been made, but it now looks like the county might operate and maintain the garage. The health system would then make annual payments to cover their parking spots — money that would go toward debt service on the garage, Picente said.
“Remember, we’re building this with the intent of public and private partnership,” he said. “Even though we’d be building this in terms of the municipality’s aspect of this, there is a hospital component because the hospital needs parking spots for doctors and the emergency room and for patients.”
Right now, it looks like the garage will have around 1,050 spots, but the design work is ongoing, Picente said.
“While we’re doing design, we’re not going to go forward on any site work until we get those properties addressed,” he said. “As soon as we can get control of the other properties, we’ll present our proposal, meet again with the hospital and the city.”
Although work on the hospital has begun, the garage won’t take as long, leaving time for the eminent domain process, Picente said.
“It gives us a little more breathing room,” he said.