This month, U.S.-based energy giant Invenergy expects to break ground on New York’s second largest solar farm project at the former Tallgrass golf course in Shoreham.  A leader in wind and solar development, energy storage and natural gas operations, Invenergy will add the Shoreham Solar Commons to its portfolio.

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The Long Island Power Authority approved the solar array in 2016 and, in early 2017, the New York State Comptroller and Attorney General green-lit the project.  Last month, Invenergy finalized its acquisition of the Tallgrass property.  Invenergy awaits the Town of Brookhaven’s issuance of the building permit for the project.

The 150-acre array will generate 24.9 megawatts (50,000 megawatt hours per year) – enough to power approximately 4,500 homes – under a 20-year power-purchase agreement with LIPA.  Notably, the 24.9 megawatts comes in just under the 25 megawatt threshold that would have triggered a more extensive review process under New York’s Power Act of 2011 that was signed into law by Governor Cuomo on August 4, 2011 (codified in Article 10 of the New York Public Service Law).

Unlike many other solar farms proposed on Long Island and elsewhere, Shoreham Solar Commons will not require clearcutting trees.  Tallgrass was fittingly a “links style” golf course, a more traditional style course hosting open spaces, high grass and bunkers rather than trees and brush.  In addition, Invenergy has pledged to plant 2,000 evergreen trees to buffer the array.

Invenergy will employ upwards of 100 people during construction over the next year, but there are no plans for full-time jobs after the array is built.  The Commons will pay approximately $670,000 per year to its local taxing districts – almost ten times more than the taxes paid by Tallgrass.  The tax figure will increase prospectively.

two housesOn April 5, 2017, in an Article 78 proceeding, Tavano v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Patterson, 2017 NY Slip Op 02661, the Second Department reversed a trial court decision and reinstated a decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Patterson.  The zoning board had granted petitioner Tavano’s application to establish a legal non-conforming use of a second building on his property, referred to as the “cottage.”

Tavano argued that the cottage located at his property was a leased residential dwelling and that its use preexisted the Town’s 1942 zoning ordinance, which provided that “a building, structure, or premises could be used as a rooming or boarding house so long as there were no more than three boarders or roomers.”  Id.

In reversing the trial court’s finding, the Appellate Division noted that petitioner owned property in Brewster that is improved with a single family dwelling constructed in 1947 and a cottage constructed in 1955.  Tavano lived in the single family dwelling and rented the cottage.

Although the Appellate Division did not affirmatively state that its decision rested on the fact that the cottage was constructed in 1955, well after the 1942 zoning ordinance was enacted, and thus, Tavano could not establish entitlement to a legal nonconforming use, the Court did state that “to establish a legal nonconforming use, a property owner must demonstrate that the allegedly preexisting use was legal prior to the enactment of the zoning ordinance that purportedly rendered it nonconforming.”

Here, and without benefit of the trial court opinion, it appears that the relevant question was not only whether the cottage was constructed prior to enactment of the 1942 ordinance, but also whether Tavano’s use of the cottage constituted use as a rooming or boarding house.

In reinstating the zoning  board’s decision, the Appellate Division relied upon the long-standing legal principle that ‘[t]he determination of a zoning board regarding the continuation of a preexisting nonconfirming use must be sustained if it is rational and supported by substantial evidence, even if the reviewing court would have reached a different result”

Consequently, and as all land use lawyers will attest, even if the trial court or reviewing court would have reached a different result than that zoning board, deference is to be afforded to the zoning board.  Finding that the “ZBA’s determination that the cottage did not constitute a rooming or boarding house under the 1942 zoning ordinance was not arbitrary or capricious”, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court and reinstated the zoning board’s decision.

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The Town of Brookhaven has engaged in efforts to preserve Long Island’s links and, last month, took the first steps towards fulfilling its endeavor. On March 2, 2017, the Brookhaven Town Board unanimously adopted two resolutions rezoning Mill Pond and Rolling Oaks golf courses, respectively, from a residential district to the newly created golf course district. See, p. 2, 151-161.  Recent closure and redevelopment of renowned eighteen-rounders, including the Links at Shirley and Tall Grass, precipitated the Town’s concern and concerted efforts to act.

A housing development replaced the Links at Shirley after it closed in 2011.  A separate housing development failed to precipitate at Tall Grass several years ago; and over the next few months, the State’s second largest commercial solar farm will consume the bunkers, water hazards and greens in Shoreham. Notably, Commack-based development firm Heatherwood has added housing to its golf course in Manorville and has future plans to add housing to its Centereach club.

Brookhaven’s latest zoning ordinance developments seek to protect and promote our Island’s golf courses, which provide greenery, open spaces, vistas, outdoor activities for our residents and visitors and economic stimulus for the immediate areas. The resolutions placed the two Town-owned properties into the new golf course district – which move accomplishes two major items.

First, the rezone protects the courses by making redevelopment into other residential uses less attractive and adds another hurdle to the redevelopment process. For example, a developer seeking to excise parcels zoned within the golf course district to build housing must not only purchase the parcels from the Town, but must also seek a rezone from the golf course district to a residential or mixed-family district. In seeking a rezone, the developer must obtain Town Board approval. Moreover, if objectants file a protest petition, then a supermajority of the Town Board must approve the rezone. The additional hurdle to redevelopment inevitably creates hesitation for lending prospects, because lenders require certainty to finance such projects.

Second, the new golf course district permits the course operators to make additional improvements to promote their courses and venues. Permitted accessory uses include bars, catering halls, spas, game rooms, health clubs, physical therapy facilities and major restaurants. Such enhancements will allow golf course operators to promote their clubs with added entertainment and event planning.

Brookhaven initially planned to rezone more courses, including privately-owned courses, but the owners’ concerns of the rezone affecting their abilities to borrow funds prompted a pause on this maneuver. There are approximately eight other golf courses located within the Town; two courses operated by the Village of Bellport and the Village of Port Jefferson, respectively, are not affected by the latest rezone.

seqraThe New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“NYSDEC”) proposed significant changes to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) regulations almost 5 years ago. The NYSDEC recently indicated that these proposed regulations finally will be enacted this year. The proposed regulations will streamline the SEQRA process. This post discusses changes to Type II actions under the proposed regulations.

Type II Projects

Type II actions do not require SEQRA review. The proposed regulations will add over a dozen different specific actions to this category. Some of the more interesting additions to Type II actions include:

  • In cities, towns, or villages with adopted zoning laws or ordinances, reuse of a commercial or residential structure not requiring a change in zoning or a use variance, unless it meets or exceeds certain specified thresholds.
  • In cities, towns, and villages with adopted subdivision regulations, a “minor” subdivision that does not involve construction of new roads, water, or sewer infrastructure and is not part of a larger tract subdivided within the previous 12 months.
  • A recommendation of a county or regional planning board issued pursuant to General Municipal Law §§ 239-m or 239-n.
  • Replacement, rehabilitation, or reconstruction of a structure or facility on the same site, including upgrading buildings to meet energy codes or to incorporate green building infrastructure techniques, within certain specified thresholds.
  • Installation of up to five megawatts of solar energy arrays on certain existing structures, including landfills, brownfield cleanup sites, and residential and commercial parking facilities.
  • Installation of cellular antennas or repeaters on certain existing structures.
  • Installation of fiber-optic or other broadband cable technology in existing highway or utility rights-of-way.
  • Specified brownfields clean-up agreements.
  • Acquisition, sale, lease, annexation, or transfer of any ownership of land to undertake any activity on the new list of Type II actions.
  • Disposition by a municipal or state agency of land, by auction, where there is no discretion on its part on the outcome, such as when a municipality or a state agency acquires land through foreclosure and is required to dispose of the site through a public auction to the highest qualified bidder.      

Conclusion

The NYSDEC is accepting comments on the proposed regulations until May 19, 2017 and intends to enact them in the Fall.

office spaceOn February 20, 2017, our colleagues blogged about Ader v. Guzman, 135 AD3d 668 [2d Dept. 2016] and a guidance letter subsequently issued by the NYS Department of State (NYSDOS). At issue was the responsibility of a real estate broker to have a working knowledge of the property being marketed, including land use and zoning restrictions. The Court held that a broker has no duty to investigate whether there is a valid rental permit for the residential rental property. The NYSDOS, which licenses real estate brokers and salespersons in New York, reached a different conclusion, noting that the failure of a broker to have a working knowledge of the site could violate the broker’s obligations under the Real Property Law §§ 441 and 441-c.

On Wednesday, March 29, 2017, we presented a program to the Commercial Industrial Broker Society of Long Island (CIBS) about Land Use and Environmental Pitfalls for Real Estate Agents and Brokers that dealt with the Ader/NYSDOS issue. We also discussed NYS’s Tenant Notification Law and other potential environmental and land use traps that could adversely impact realtors.  Please click here for a copy of our power point presentation.  We hope you enjoy it!

childrightslogoenSometimes called a “case of the race,” the common law doctrine of vested rights is “one of the most troublesome areas of land use regulation.”  Exeter Building Corp v Town of Newburgh, 114 AD3d 774 [2d Dept 2014].

In New York, the “vested rights” doctrine is equitable in nature and implicated when a property owner or developer seeks to continue the use of property in a way that was permissible before an  enactment or amendment of zoning regulations no longer permits it.   Town of Orangetown v. Magee, 88 NY2d 41 [1996].

Generally, an owner of real property can acquire common-law vested rights to develop property in accordance with the prior zoning regulations when (1) in reliance on a legally issued permit, the landowner (2) effects substantial changes and incurs substantial expenses to further the development and (3) the landowner’s actions relying on the valid permit(s) are so substantial that the municipal action results in serious loss rendering the improvements essentially valueless.  Id.  As a result, the “race” becomes whether the developer gets the project completed or at least substantially completed to satisfy the Magee test before the municipality get its zoning code in place.

Recently, in Exeter Building Corp v. Town of Newburgh, the Court of Appeals affirmed a determination by the Appellate Division holding that the developer had not vested a plan to build 136 townhouse units, because it could not have reasonably relied on valid permits when warned repeatedly of a rezoning by the Planning Board.  In Exeter, the Court of Appeals refined the reliance test in Magee, holding that is was not “reasonablefor the developer  to rely on a conditional  site  plan approval placing emphasis on the Town Planning Board’s repeated warnings of the proposed rezoning.

Now, not only must developers listen for the starting gun in a vested rights case, but they must also consider the reasonableness of a municipality’s warning. Such an additional qualifier seems to give the government a head start.

For a detailed discussion of vested rights and the underlying Appellate Division case, see one of our earlier blog posts, Appellate Court Rules on Common-Law Vested Rights.

 

shutterstock_252155278The Town Board of the Town of East Hampton (“Town Board”) is considering progressive new legislation that will require advanced nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems for all new commercial and residential construction and major renovation projects.  This law, loosely modeled after a similar law adopted by the Town of Brookhaven for projects located within the environmentally-sensitive Carmans River watershed, imposes regulations designed to supplement those required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (“SCDHS”), pursuant to Article 6 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code.  At the February 7, 2017, Town Board work session, Supervisor Larry Cantwell justified the need for the law by declaring that “we need to find a way to replace these antiquated cesspools and septic systems that are clearly a threat to the quality of life and the quality of life that we have in the town.”

Under the proposed law, a new, low-nitrogen sanitary system will be mandated in one of three circumstances.  The first is where a proposal involves new commercial or residential construction.  The second is where there is an existing sanitary system, but there is evidence that it is failing. The third circumstance involves the substantial expansion of an existing structure.  Pursuant to East Hampton Town Code § 255-1-20(A), “substantial expansion” occurs where a building addition increases its gross floor area by 50% or more or where the cost of an addition, reconstruction, rehabilitation or other improvement to a structure equals or exceeds 50% of the market value of the structure prior to making or undertaking the addition, reconstruction, rehabilitation or other improvement.

At the outset, a qualifying “Low-Nitrogen Sanitary System” will be defined as one that is approved by the SCDHS and proven to reduce nitrogen levels in wastewater to 19 milligrams or less per liter.  However, the law contemplates that as technology advances and new systems are approved by the SCDHS that reduce nitrogen levels even further, future systems will be required to reduce nitrogen levels to 10 milligrams or less per liter.  By comparison, conventional systems release about 50 milligrams per liter of nitrogen into groundwater.

Since low-nitrogen systems, by design, need ongoing monitoring and maintenance in order to function properly, the law will require that owners of these systems maintain them in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.  The Town will also require inspections of these systems at least once every three years by qualified persons employed by or for the Town, or at anytime the Town’s Sanitation Inspector has reason to believe that a system is malfunctioning, has been illegally modified or expanded, or is being operated beyond its design limits.

In order to encourage the use of low-nitrogen sanitary systems, the Town Board is also considering a companion law entitled “Low-Nitrogen Sanitary System Rebate Program,” which creates a multi-tiered system of rebates to incentivize qualifying homeowners to voluntarily replace their aging cesspools and conventional septic systems with new sanitary systems that reduce nitrogen emissions.  The rebates would be paid from the Community Preservation Fund (“CPF”), a portion of which is available for water quality improvement projects.  The CPF, which is funded by a 2 percent tax on real estate transactions, is anticipated to have between $4 and $5 million available to fund the rebate program each year.

The largest rebate, covering 100% of the replacement cost of the system up to $15,000, would be offered to all homeowners in a Town Water Protection District, where shallow groundwater tables and proximity to tidal water bodies causes nitrogen in wastewater to quickly reach surface waters.  Homeowners with cesspool systems who are not located in a Water Protection District will be eligible for a 50% rebate, up to $10,000, and if their household income meets the Town’s threshold to qualify for affordable housing, the rebate increases to 75 percent.  Homeowners who are not eligible for either a cesspool or Water Protection District rebate, but wish to replace existing sanitary systems with new, advanced technology systems are eligible for rebates of 25% of the cost, up to a maximum of $5,000.  In order to qualify for the rebate program, the property owners must have an annual household income below the State’s STAR exemption threshold of $500,000.

At the conclusion of the February 7, 2017 Town Board work session meeting, Supervisor Cantwell indicated that both laws are likely to be discussed at a subsequent Town Board work session meeting prior to scheduling a public hearing on the legislation.

East Hampton Town restricts the size of accessory structures to 600 s.f. (each) with no plumbing.   However, because of a long history of artists in the Town (e.g., Pollock, Willem and Elaine DeKooning), an artist’s studio is allowed to have a sink and to be as large as 2,500 s.f., depending on the size of the main house. Of course, you have to be an artist to have an artist’s studio: an “artist’s studio” may be “used only by an individual working in the fine arts on a professional basis.”

shutterstock_596874467For a long time, the building inspector’s office approved artists and their respective artist’s studio expanded accessory structure (greater than 600 s.f.).  The building inspector’s office was a bit loosey-goosey, allowing, for example, studios for knitting sweaters and the like. A few years ago, the Town tightened up the standards and required town board approval of the “artist”  in accordance with the definition set forth in the town code.  The approval is now being transferred to the planning board.

Approval of an artist’s studio requires recording a covenant stating that the non-conforming aspects of the approved studio (the sink and size over 600 s.f.) must be removed once the approved artist’s studio use is discontinued – usually because of the sale of the property to someone without an approved artist in the family. These covenants were almost universally ignored – until recently. The Town is now on a tear to get rid of artists’ studios without artists. The town is screening properties and owners and sending letters to non-artist owners of properties with an approved artist’s studio advising that the approval will expire in six months and that they must cease and desist from occupancy when the artist’s use ceases. The requirement to cease occupancy is usually included in the recorded covenant that was required when the use was approved.

There has been no litigation over the cease and desist regime, at least not so far.  For those who have received the cease and desist letter, or expect to receive one at some time in the future, the available remedies are as follows:

  1. Town board (or planning board) approval of the new owner as a bona fide artist.  This is notably harder than it used to be when applicants pushed the envelope to include studios for knitting sweaters or home repair of furniture.  The standards for compliance set forth in the Code include an application by the artist, who must then comply with the definition of an “artist” set forth in the code.   A person with training, but without exhibitions, might get approval; this is probably not the case for the sweater-knitter or home furniture repair ‘artist’.
  2. Obtain a variance to keep the existing building.  This probably would not work to keep the sink, but might work in particular circumstances – such as keeping a second floor studio space due to the  cost associated with removing it.  The normal balancing test for zoning variances (benefit to applicant v. detriment to neighborhood and community) would apply.  The town planners argue that building owners should not get a variance simply because of the inconvenience of achieving compliance  – especially because buyers had notice of the restrictions through the covenants filed.  The only variance granted recently was for a 150-year old cottage that had been converted to an artist’s studio and then sold by the artist to a non-artist.
  3. Achieve compliance – removing plumbing and reducing size to 600 square feet.
  4. Size reduction by conversion.  Actually making the whole building smaller (or the whole second floor smaller) can be both difficult and expensive. Size reduction by converting a part of the structure to storage might work. In the past, the building department has issued updated certificates of occupancy when a portion of the artist’s studio is converted to non-habitable storage space and is separated from the rest of the studio.  That portion is then not counted as habitable gross floor area, reducing the habitable size of the accessory structure to 600 s.f., thereby conforming to the accessory limits.  This may require a separate entrance to the storage area, no connection between the storage area and the remaining 600 s.f. portion, removal of insulation, etc. and even lowering the joists/cross beams to a non-habitable height, such as five feet.
  5. Litigation challenging the statute on fundamental constitutional issues is feasible. No one wants to go that route, at least so far, because the time and cost is impractical.

 

Two recent New York cases brought to mind the well-known poem about trees. No, not the one written by Joyce Kilmer. The other one, written by Ogden Nash. Who can ever forget those immortal words. “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Yes, the cases involve billboards and zoning.

But first some history.evil-trees

Sky Signs

One of the first reported cases on municipal regulation of outdoor advertising, People v Wineburgh Advertising Company, 19 NY 126 [1909], involved the regulation of “sky signs” by the City of New York. That regulation limited rooftop signs on private property to 9 feet above the front wall or cornice and prohibited taller signs no matter how securely the signs were affixed to the building. Wineburgh Advertising sought to install a sign on the roof of the 10-story office building located at 27 East 22nd  Street in Manhattan. The bottom of the proposed sign was to be 5 feet 6 inches above the roof and soar to 20 feet 6 inches above the roof. It was to be set back 40 to 50 feet from the building line. The City refused to approve the sign on the grounds it was a safety hazard and the legal challenge ensued.

In rejecting the City’s decision and finding it arbitrary and unlawful, the New York Court of Appeals noted that no such height restriction applied to other roof-top structures, such as tanks, towers, chimneys, flagpoles, balustrades, finials or ornamental finishes. The Court determined that the City’s objection to the sky sign was not a safety issue, but rather sought to control the advertising that would be placed on the sign. The building was allowed to install its sky sign.

Now for the two new cases.

Colossal Murals

In Matter of Skyhigh Murals – Colossal Media, Inc. v Board of Standards and Appeals of the City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 30088(U) [Supreme Court, NY County, January 13, 2017], a 900 square foot hand painted advertising sign was proposed to be located on the side of a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The building is located within a M1-1 manufacturing zoning district. Directly across the street, in a MX-8 Special Mixed Use zoning district, is a residential building. The sign would face this residential building.

First the Department of Buildings, and then the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), rejected the application on the grounds the sign violated the City’s Zoning Resolution as it would adjoin a residential zoning district. The Court rejected the argument and castigated the BSA for having “muffed such a simple and obvious statutory interpretation.”    According to the BSA, the building was located in “co-designated” residential and mixed use zones. The Court explained that the Zoning Resolution superimposed the MX-8 zoning district on paired M1 and Residential Districts. Thus, it did not matter that the residential building was located in the residential part of the paired districts. It was located in the MX-8 zoning district. The Court permitted the installation of the sign.

Billboards     

The second case comes from upstate and concerns billboards along an interstate highway. In Matter of Expressview Development Inc. v Town of Gates Zoning Board of Appeals, __ AD3d __2017,2017 Slip Op 00874 [4th Dept. 2017], the zoning provision in question prohibited commercial advertising signs that were not located on the site of the business being advertised. The site in question abutted an interstate highway. It was composed of 6 contiguous vacant parcels that combined into an oddly-shaped site. The site had been acquired back in the mid-1980s and had been approved as an industrial park in 1982. The owner never developed the park and it remained vacant. The site had been on the market for years with little interest.

In 2009, Expressview Development made an offer to purchase the site contingent upon it being able to construct billboards that would be visible from the interstate highway. The prospective purchaser applied for use and area variances to construct the billboards, which were denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board determined that the billboards violated the zoning code restriction as they would be used for advertising of commercial enterprises not operating at the site. The board also found that the proposed billboards would adversely affect the character of the neighborhood and would result in billboard overload as there were already more than enough signs on that stretch of highway.

The Appellate Division agreed with the Zoning Board of Appeals. Wholly unsympathetic to the owner, (the Court referred to the owner as a “careless land buyer”), the Court rejected the property owner’s hardship claim. The Court also noted that the “off-premises” zoning restriction applicable to commercial advertising did not violate free speech rights.

The orientation of a tennis court in a north/south direction is a benefit to competitive players interested in fair tennis play. Even the Appellate Division, Second Department, agrees.

To avoid the impact of sun glare, a Town of Southampton property owner sought several variances to construct a tennis court in a north/south direction. One of the variances requested a 17-foot setback from the street where 90 feet is required.  (Southampton Town Code, Section 330-11.)   This variance would allow the tennis court to be situated in a north/south direction and thus avoid the impact of sun glare that would occur if situated in an east/west direction.

StockSnap_8ODE0WIMD9A neighboring property owner, located across the street, appeared at the public hearing and opposed the requested variances.  In reaching its 2014 determination to grant the variance application, the Southampton Board of Zoning Appeals found that the proposed tennis court was located 158 feet away from the opposing neighbor’s house and therefore would not create a detriment to the property owner or the surrounding neighborhood.

The Board also relied upon no less than eight (8) mitigating factors, including:

  • Proposed landscape screening;
  • Sinking the court into the ground by four feet, thereby mitigating potential noise impacts;
  • The alternative of constructing a 9,000 square foot house was far more impactful;
  • The goal of distancing the court from the immediately contiguous neighbors was more important than any perceived impact to the opposing neighbor located across the street.

Unhappy with the Zoning Board’s determination, the opposing neighbor commenced an Article 78 proceeding in addition to seeking a TRO and preliminary injunctive relief.  After considering the arguments, by Decision and Order dated May 19, 2014, the trial court (J. Garguilo) upheld the Zoning Board’s decision, while at the same time vacating the TRO and denying petitioner’s request for preliminary injunctive relief.   Petitioner’s attempt to appeal the denial of injunctive relief was dismissed by the Appellate Division as the Second Department held that “appeal from the intermediate order in this proceeding must be dismissed because the right of direct appeal therefrom terminated with the entry of a judgment dated November 10, 2014.”  Id.

By further decision of even date, the Appellate Division upheld the Zoning Board determination, finding not only  “there was no evidence that the granting of the variance would produce an undesirable change in the character of the neighborhood, have an adverse effect on physical and environmental conditions, or otherwise result in a detriment to the health, safety, and welfare of the neighborhood or community . . . [but also] the Zoning Board rationally concluded that the benefit sought by [the applicant}, namely, to maximize its use of the proposed tennis court, could not be achieved by the alternative site proposed by the petitioner.”  Id.

The Appellate Division made the above determinations despite the fact that it found that the variances requested by the property owner were substantial in nature and that the difficulty was self-created. This decision is important to those seeking to uphold a favorable variance grant in the wake of neighboring opposition because this decision demonstrates that focusing on the absence of, or minimal, undesirable change in a neighborhood and detriment to the health, safety, and welfare of a community can trump substantial variance requests, including those that are self-created in nature.