In keeping with our retelling of failed eminent domain projects, here is another one. This one was not as notorious as Poletown, or Midkiff, or Kelo, but for sheer abuse of citizens’ rights it’s up there in that league. Except that this one had a happy ending of sorts; the bad guys got nothing in the end and had to eat the green wienie to the tune of $14 million.
If you are into eminent domain law, you might want to start by reading the New York Court of Appeals decision in Yonkers Community Redevelopment Agency v. Morris, 335 N.E.2d 327 (N.Y. 1975). The short version is that Otis Elevators had a plant in Yonkers and in the 1970s it was prospering. So much so that it needed to expand. Yonkers offered Otis a suitable site, but Otis declined, insisting on a parcel adjacent to its plant, owned by some other folks, including one William T. Morris, Jr. The city redevelopment agency proceeded to take Morris’ parcel but it didn’t bother with the procedural niceties; it attended to those after the fact, after its deal with Otis was all done. In spite of Morris’ protestations that his property was not blighted and that this was a purely private deal pursued to placate Otis, not a constitutionally required public use, the New York Courts went along with Yonkers and ordered Morris’ land taken, and – adding insult to injury – charged him with wanting to “wreak some sort of vengeance on the city” by asserting his rights.
And so Otis got Morris’ land for a song – it cost the city some $14 million to acquire that land but it sold it to Otis for $1.392 million. What a deal! But it didn’t last. Elevator technology moved forward and the kind of elevator equipment Otis made in Yonkers gradually became obsolete. So Otis’ parent company, United Technologies, shut down the Yonkers plant, leaving the city holding the bag. So guess who now wanted to “wreak vengeance”? The New York Times quoted the Mayor of Yonkers as saying “We want to make U.T.C. a bad household word . . . to make U.T.C. known as the company that raped Yonkers.” “Raped”? Goodness, gracious. And here we thought that Yonkers entered into its deal with Otis voluntarily. If the term “rape” can have any application to this situation, it more accurately describes Yonkers’ conduct toward Morris.
Undeterred by such trivia, Yonkers sued Otis in federal court, demanding justice. Yessireebob, Justice! Strangely enough, that’s just what it got. The federal courts ruled that in the Yonkers-Otis agreement, Otis made no promises to stay in Yonkers for any particular period of time, that there was no implied contract and no estoppel. On top of that, the federal trial court imposed a fine of $5000 on Yonkers as sanctions because of its unjustified charge that Otis had acted fraudulently. You can read all about it in Yonkers v. Oris Elevator Co., 844 F.2d 42 (2d Cir. 1988). A good read, that. Though we can’t say that the good guys won, at least the bad guys got it in the chops. In this imperfect world, you don’t get many of those, so when one comes along you have to cherish it.
There is no indication in the public record, or at least none that we can find, that anyone shed a tear for Mr. Morris or at least reminded us lately of the outrageous injustice inflicted on him by the City of Yonkers and the New York Courts. So the task of recognition of his good fight falls to us. So here is to your good health, Mr. Morris, or to your memory, as the case may be. A tumbler of Macallen’s best will be raised on high this evening and a toast will be duly drunk to William T. Morris, Jr., a citizen of Yonkers, New York, a man of principle who stood up for what’s right, even if he did not prevail.