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NY top court blocks Willets West mall near Citi Field

ALBANY — The state’s top court on Tuesday blocked a proposed shopping mall near the New York Mets’ home at Citi Field, ruling that developers of the proposed Willets West project needed expressed consent from state legislators and the governor’s office before moving forward.

In a 5-1 decision, the Court of Appeals said because the area developers are eyeing was originally part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park — later home to Shea Stadium — the state’s public trust doctrine prevents parkland from being turned over to developers without specific state legislative approval.

Just because lawmakers gave approval 55 years ago for Shea Stadium to be built on the park site doesn’t mean the authorization can be applied to new development proposals, Judge Rowan Wilson wrote for the majority.

The outcome of the long-running lawsuit not only impacts the plans of the Queens Development Group — which includes the Mets and developer Related Cos. — but also potentially the New York Islanders.

The NHL team has been considering the Willets site for a new arena, although they have been more focused on the Belmont Park area, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman said recently.

An Islanders spokesman didn’t comment immediately.

The development partnership had proposed the mall as part of a $3 billion redevelopment of Willets Point. The plan includes a mall, hotel, movie theater and residential development, according to court documents. It was backed by the city government.

In a statement, the Queens Development Group said the court’s decision “further delays a project” to create a “vibrant community” at the site, which is now primarily a parking lot.

“At a time when Queens needs private investment more than ever, the court’s decision disregards the City Council, the local community board and other stakeholders who have already approved the Willets West plan,” the developers said. They said they were “evaluating our next steps.”

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens), a leader of the opposition to the project, called the ruling a “huge victory for the public trust doctrine and for anybody who believes parkland is sacred.”

“The fact that we won sets a huge precedent for the future,” Avella said at the State Capitol.

The Court of Appeals upheld a 2015 ruling by a midlevel court.

Wilson noted that in 1961 the State Legislature enacted a law allowing a portion of Flushing Meadows Park to be used specifically to build a stadium for the Mets.

The Willets developers argued that the 1961 authorization applied to any development proposed for the parklands. Therefore, they said, they didn’t need to pursue a new legislative approval. Wilson wrote that, “the plain language of the statute does not authorize the proposed construction.”

That “history also unambiguously demonstrates that the Legislature did not authorize the city to do more than enter into agreements for the use of the stadium . . .,” Wilson said.

“In sum, the text of the statute and its legislative history flatly refute the proposition that the Legislature granted the city the authority to construct a development such as Willets West in Flushing Meadow Park.”

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore dissented, noting that the disputed parcel is “presently covered in asphalt, is being used as a parking lot” and concluding that “the Legislature already decided to alienate the parkland at issue.”

Avella said he wouldn’t be automatically opposed to legislation allowing the development project. But he noted that parkland conveyances generally operate on a one-to-one trade off — meaning an equal number of acres would have to be set aside as public lands to allow Willets West.

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