shutterstock_1842816On April 27, 2017, the Town Board of the Town of Brookhaven approved a change of zone for Rock Hill Golf and Country Club from a one-acre residential lot zone to the Golf Course District.  Manorville’s Rock Hill is the first private course to join the Town’s newly created Golf Course District.

The district is designed to protect and preserve Long Island’s golf courses amidst rapid redevelopment.  The open spaces, vistas, greenery and outdoor recreation have recently experienced a surge of transition into multi-family dwellings and housing complexes.  The new zone removes some of the allure for such transitions and provides golf course owners and operators with more tools to be successful, including added permitted uses and on-site functionality.

Rock Hill joins Mill Pond and Rolling Oaks in the Golf Course District.

shutterstock_637510813On April 25, 2017, the Southold Town Board adopted Local Law No. 5 of 2017, which amends the Town’s Zoning Code as it relates to agricultural uses. Specifically, the local law amends and adds certain definitions to the Code in recognition of the changes in modern farm operations. The changes are also consistent with the expanded definitions of agriculture found in New York State’s Agriculture and Markets Law.

The new law broadens the scope of agricultural practices by adding several definitions, including those for agriculture, agricultural production, agricultural processing, farm operations, farmhouses, processed agricultural product and on-farm operation direct marketing.  These changes expand agricultural practices beyond the growing of crops and raising of livestock and will allow farmers to process their crops and other agricultural products onsite and market them for sale, much like vineyards that make wine on their properties. Such processed agricultural products include jams, jellies, cheeses, potato chips, jerkies, meats, fowl, fish, breads and baked goods, beer, wine and distilled alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Farmers will also be allowed to sell their processed agricultural products directly to consumers from within buildings constructed on the farm for the purpose of marketing their products.  The law even allows non-farmers to sell home grown fruits, vegetables or plants to the general public from a “roadside stand,” which is defined as a display area that is less than 100 square feet in size located on the same parcel where the products are grown.

According to Chris Baiz, the chairman of the Southold Agricultural Advisory Committee and a fourth-generation farmer, the high cost of land requires farmers to achieve greater cash flows in order to operate successfully.  These new changes should help local farmers realize more income from their lands by allowing them to process and market value-added products from within their operations.

voidable-contractsAlso known as negative easements, restrictive covenants can wreak havoc on the ability to develop property. Recently, in our real estate practice at Farrell Fritz, we have seen two alarming examples.

In both cases, the restrictive covenant combined with applying municipal zoning requirements precluded the development of the property. Fortunately, we had inserted language into the contracts that allowed the client to cancel the contract with no negative financial consequences.

Restrictive Covenants and Land Use Regulations

One such instance involved a waterfront parcel on Shinnecock Bay in the Town of Southampton. This property was subject to the Town’s wetland law, which regulates the setback of structures in relation to the location of the wetlands on site. Through a title search, we found out that the property was also burdened by a private covenant that also restricted the location of structures.

This covenant contained specific language which required that a structure constructed on the site be setback at least 85 feet from the street. From the opposite side of the property, the Town’s wetland regulations required that a principal structure be at least 125 feet from the wetlands.

Applying both the wetland setback and covenant setback resulted in a negative building envelope.

Since this covenant was included as part of the subdivision process, all 26 owners of lots in the subdivision had to sign off on a waiver of the covenant requirements.

Another similar circumstance occurred where a covenant in a deed for a lakefront property required that any structure constructed on the premises be situated 60 feet from the street. This property was also subject to the same 125-foot wetland setback as the previous example. Again, application of both setbacks rendered the lot unbuildable.

In this instance, the covenant was unusual. It only benefitted the sellers of the lot, who also owned other properties in the area. The sellers specifically retained the right to modify the restrictions imposed by the covenant.

If applied to their fullest extent, both restrictions result in a lot that cannot be developed.

Relief From Restrictive Covenants

Obviously, a property owner could apply for relief to the municipal agency having authority over wetland regulations. However, these municipal boards are under increasing pressure to preserve wetlands which protect water bodies, so relief from these restrictions is difficult to obtain. Extinguishment of the covenant is the only other option. There are three ways to extinguish a covenant:  (1) an agreement between the interested parties to the covenants; (2) a merger of ownership or (3) a final decision by a court of law.

All three paths are challenging.

To obtain an agreement to extinguish the covenant in my first example would require consent from the other 25 property owners in the subdivision.

Because of the vague nature of the language that created the covenant in the lakefront example, extinguishment involves a difficult title challenge. There, a prospective developer must research title ownership of the nearby properties to determine those owned by the persons that created the covenant. After that research, a perspective purchaser must then obtain an agreement of all current property owners in the chain of title of the affected properties to amend the covenant.

Second, to merge ownership would require the purchase of the properties that benefit from the covenant. A purchase of the necessary lots in both examples above would be cost prohibitive.

Finally, a party looking to extinguish a covenant can commence a litigation under §1500 of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law. There are too many causes of action under §1500 to list here; but extinguishing a well written covenant through the court system would be a difficult, time consuming, and expensive task.

The obvious advice here is to authorize a title company to provide any covenants and easements that could affect the development of a property under consideration for purchase prior to entering into contract of sale.

The Town of Southampton recently held several public hearings to consider a local law requiring an updated certificate of occupancy prior to all property transfers. Specifically, the local law proposed amending Town Code §123-16, Certificate of Occupancy, to state that “upon any change in ownership of a property, an updated certificate of occupancy shall be obtained.” After consideration at several meetings, starting in December of 2016 and ending in March of 2017, the Town Board determined not to proceed with the amendment.

Many East End villages already require an updated certificate of occupancy prior to transfers of property, [1] however East Hampton, Southampton and Southold towns do not. During its public hearing process, the Town Board of the Town of Southampton waded through the many issues raised with regard to the impacts of requiring an updated certificate of occupancy upon both property owners and the Town Building Department. The Town considered allowing exceptions for those transfers conducted for estate purposes only and those transfers between individuals and corporations, limited liability companies, trusts or other entities where the majority shareholder would be the same as the prior fee title owners. Additionally, the Town was asked to consider those properties that cannot obtain an updated certificate of occupancy upon transfer due to over-clearing where compliance requires significant re-vegetation of the property and in certain circumstances Planning or Conservation Board approvals. Obviously re-vegetation cannot occur during the winter months and there is no temporary certificate of occupancy provision in the Town of Southampton’s code potentially putting property owners in a hurry to sell in a difficult situation.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed an updated certificate of occupancy code provision in Lazy S Group I, v. Gomez, et al., 60 A.D. 3d 999, 876 N.Y.S.2d 473 (2d Dept. 2009). This case involved an action for specific performance of a contract for the sale of real property in the City of Peekskill where the contract required the seller to deliver a valid certificate of occupancy authorizing the use of the premises as a four-family dwelling. At closing, the parties learned that the certificate of occupancy for the premises permitted its use as a “three-plus” family dwelling but not as a four family dwelling and title did not close. Litigation followed and during that time period the City of Peekskill enacted a new provision of the Code of the City of Peekskill requiring that an updated certificate of occupancy be obtained before any improved real property that is transferred may be used or occupied. The code imposed the burden of obtaining the certificate of occupancy upon the seller “unless the parties agree otherwise in their contract of sale.” (Peekskill City Code §300-48A(3)). The Supreme Court granted the seller’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and directing the delivery of the down payment to the seller as liquidated damages. The Appellate Division reversed noting that while the City Code imposed the burden of obtaining an updated certificate of occupancy on the Seller unless the contract stated otherwise, the contract in this case was silent with respect to which party must obtain the updated certificate of occupancy. Thus, the Court found that triable issues of fact existed as to whether the communications between the parties and conduct of the parties at closing constituted any agreement with regard to the updated certificate of occupancy and whether there was a breach and if so, which party was in breach of contract. This case illustrates issues that arise when updated certificates of occupancy are required by municipalities and further illustrates the benefit of addressing such matters with specificity in the contract of sale. Indeed, most real estate attorneys require updated certificates of occupancy in their riders to the contract and are successful in obtaining same unless the property is being sold “as is” or there are existing illegal structures that would take a significant amount of time and village/town approvals to cure (as in the case of those over-cleared properties that require costly re-vegetation and further town approvals).

Requiring updated certificates of occupancy for real property transfers burdens homeowners with legalizing all structures on their property and necessarily can delay real estate transactions to the chagrin of real estate brokers. However, the law would obviate any need for protracted and often difficult negotiations regarding properties that do not comply with the law or have existing, illegal structures and would therefore be welcomed by most attorneys. Regardless, for real property transfers in the East End towns, attorneys must continue to resolve such matters through contract negotiations.

[1] See Village of Quogue; Village of Sag Harbor Code §300-17.3(B); Village of Southampton Code §A119-8(A); Village of North Haven Code §55-7(A); Village of Westhampton Beach Code §197-64(C); & Village of East Hampton Code §104-11(A), among others.

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.

Tall Grass solar media pic
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.

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!

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.