Bethlehem seizes homeowner’s land critical to town’s water supply after negotiations break down

Albany County

BETHLEHEM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The Town of Bethlehem and a couple of its residents will soon be battling it out in the New York Supreme Court over just seven acres of land. The land is absolutely critical, providing around 40 percent of the town’s water supply.

The Town of Bethlehem had been renting the parcel of land, known as Poplar Island by the Hudson River, with several water wells on it without a problem since 1996. The town established an agreement to pay the land owners around $3,000 a year.

However, Town Attorney Jim Potter says when a sale put the land under new ownership in 2014, negotiations started to break down.

“They sought a substantial increase in rent, and then when we sought to purchase the property, they sought a value substantially in excess of what we had the property appraised for,” Potter explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Potter says an appraiser with the town valued the land at around $36,000, but the new owners, Daniel and Donna Ratner, wanted no less than $400,000.

When asked the reasons the Ratners gave during negotiations for the reasoning behind the price tag, Potter says he never got one.

“My understanding is that they have not had an appraisal performed yet,” he says. “Government entities can only pay fair market value for these types of acquisitions, and municipal budgets are always very tight, so it would have meant a significant hit had we been forced to comply with that amount.”

So Potter says the town had no choice but to take the land and keep the water supply going. They seized the property after filing an eminent domain lawsuit against the Ratners on December 20.

Eminent domain allows a government to seize private property for public use, as long as the owner is compensated. NEWS10 couldn’t reach the Ratners when we stopped by Friday afternoon, but their attorney, Dan Biersdorf, did respond to requests for comment.

“The emotional part in any eminent domain case is the whole idea of taking their property away. That’s where the emotion is and the thing that grabs most people,” Biersdorf explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

“We don’t like to exercise the power of eminent domain. In the time I’ve been town attorney, this is the first time we’ve ever exercised that power,” Potter replies.

Biersdorf confirms his clients have not yet had the land appraised. He says he and his clients won’t argue the town has the right to take the land to ensure the water supply, but they won’t step aside without fair payment.

“In my view it would be improper to contest the taking, so all we are going to be contesting is the proper value for that taking,” he says.

Potter says once the New York Supreme Court evaluates the Town of Bethlehem’s suit and if their full ownership is granted, it will be upon his office and the Ratners to present their cases to the court to decide how much the land is worth.

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