Note:  Law clerk Joanna Lima assisted in drafting this blog post.

Courts have recently expanded what constitutes religious conduct. In particular, in Matter of Sullivan v. Board of Zoning Appeals of City of Albany, 144 A.D. 3d 1480 (3d Dep’t 2016), an appellate court ruled that the use of a portion of a church parsonage for a “home base” for up to 14 homeless individuals was a permissible use of a “house of worship.”

Respondent Bethany Reformed Church owned certain real property, including a sanctuary, an educational and social building, a parsonage, and a parking lot, all of which were located adjacent to petitioner’s property. The properties were located in a residential district, which permitted, among other uses “houses of worship.” The Code of the City of Albany defined “houses of worship” as “a structure or part of a structure used for worship or religious ceremonies.”

The Church advised the City of its desire to partner with a not-for-profit corporation to establish a “home base” for up to 14 homeless individuals who were not attending school, enrolled in training programs or working at their current jobs. The City’s Building Department told the Church that it needed a use variance or special use permit as the proposed use did not appear to be for a religious purpose.   The Church then sought an interpretation from the Board of Zoning Appeals as to whether this intended use was permitted within the zoning district. The Board found that the Church’s intended use was consistent with “the mission and actions of a house of worship…” and did not require a variance or special use permit.  Petitioner brought a proceeding to annul the Board’s determination.

The Supreme Court, County of Albany, did not agree with the Board’s interpretation and annulled the Board’s decision, finding that the proposed use for the parsonage was not reasonably consistent with the term, “house of worship.” The Church appealed.  The Appellate Division reversed the decision of the Supreme Court, noting that, generally, “a zoning board’s interpretation of a zoning law [] is afforded great deference and will only be disturbed if it is irrational or unreasonable.”  An exception to this standard is where the issue is a pure legal interpretation of the zoning law.  Moreover, where a term is not defined by a zoning law, courts can apply the term’s ordinary meaning and that “any ambiguity in the language employed must be resolved in favor of the property owner.”

The Third Department first explained the rules applicable to judicial deference of municipal decisions, whether the issue presented was fact-based warranting judicial deference to the Board’s interpretation or a pure legal question excepting such deference.  Interestingly, the Appellate Division did not apply these rules in its reversal of the lower court.  The Appellate Division held that, regardless of the analytical approach, the Board’s interpretation should be upheld.  The Court noted that the term “worship” was not defined in the applicable zoning law, so the Appellate Division chose to use its ordinary meaning. The Court, relying on the dictionary meaning of the term, determined that the ordinary meaning of “worship” is defined as “any form of religious devotion, ritual, or service showing reverence – especially with respect to a divine being or supernatural power” and also includes “an act of expressing such reverence.” Noting that previous courts have been flexible in their interpretation of religious uses under zoning ordinances and did not limit religious uses solely to mean a house of prayer, the Court found that services to homeless individuals constitute religious conduct because acts of charity play a significant role in religious worship.

As outlined in our prior blog by Anthony S. Guardino, posted on March 20, 2017 entitled, “East Hampton Considers New Laws Mandating Nitrogen-Reducing Sanitary Systems and Offering Rebates to Replace Existing Systems”, similar to the Towns of East Hampton and Brookhaven,  the Town of Southampton adopted a local law on July 25, 2017 requiring advanced nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems starting September 1, 2017.

The Town will require an Innovative and Alternative On-Site Wastewater Treatment System (“I/A OWTS”) for (i) all new residential construction; (ii) any substantial septic upgrades required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; and (iii) any increase of 25% or more in the floor area of a building for those projects located in the “High Priority Area” as defined by the Community Preservation Water Quality Improvement Plan Project (“CP WQIPP”). In addition, an I/A OWTS shall be required for any new septic system or a substantial septic system upgrade required by the Conservation Board or Environment Division pursuant to Town Code Chapter 325, Wetlands.

The I/A OWTS is defined in the Town Code as “an onsite decentralized wastewater treatment system that, at a minimum, is designed to result in total nitrogen in treated effluent of 19 mg/l or less, as approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.”

Southampton is also offering a rebate program through its Community Preservation Fund for systems within the Medium and High Priority Areas of the CP WQIPP with the following qualifying limits: (i) if you earn less than $300,000 /year, up to 100% of the cost to a maximum of $15,000 is available and (ii) if you earn between $300,001 – $500,000/year, up to 50% of the cost to a maximum of $15,000 is available.

Prior to implementing the updated septic requirements, the Town of Southampton studied the need for such systems and drafted the Community Preservation Water Quality Preservation Plan Project. The CP WQIPP thoroughly identifies and reviews the need for the required sanitary upgrades, finds consistency with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and outlines how the Town characterized the high and medium priority properties that are now required to comply with the law.

Specifically, the CP WQIPP states:“The WQIPP presented herein is designed to complement the 2015 Town of Southampton CPF Project Plan, by markedly advancing efforts to foster aquatic habitat and watershed restoration, promote flushing in our bays and tidal systems, abate non-point source pollution and runoff, reduce sewage discharges and nitrogen inputs, and reverse or stem other activities threatening our coastal resources and drinking water aquifers.”

The Town of Southampton has preliminarily mapped priority areas for the purpose of this plan, based on the following criteria:

  •  Locations with no public water (well water);
  • Older communities, where many of the homes are likely to have cesspools instead of septic systems;
  • Homes that are built on small lots (less than half-acre);
  • Sites that have shallow depths to groundwater (e.g. less than 10 feet);
  • Sites that may be temporarily under threat of flooding or storm surge (FEMA Flood zones, SLOSH7 zones);
  • Soils that may be too porous or too impermeable for proper treatment of wastewater;
  • Areas where groundwater reaches surface water bodies relatively quickly;
  •  Nearby water bodies listed as TMDL impaired or the site of restoration efforts.

Parcels in each hamlet that meet one or more of these criteria are delineated on the maps as high or medium priority as follows:

High Priority: A combination of the parameters described above (SLOSH, FEMA, TMDL, Size, etc.) and 0-2 year groundwater to surface water travel times.

Medium Priority: 0-10 year groundwater to surface water travel times excluding the areas in the High Priority above.

The CP WQIPP also includes maps of the entire Town delineating the High Priority Areas (all waterfront/coastal properties in the Town) and Medium Priority Areas. Although these low nitrogen systems require ongoing monitoring and maintenance, the Southampton law does not require ongoing inspections by the Town.  The Town of Southampton has set up a helpful website where property owners can look up their specific property to determine if they are located in a High or Medium Priority area.  Notably, the Town of East Hampton adopted its local law requiring nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems on August 8, 2017, however, the portion of the law requiring the new, nitrogen-reducing sanitary system does not take effect until January 1, 2018.

 

Now more than ever, climate resiliency along our coastlines is an important aspect of long range municipal planning.   Back in 1981, the New York State Legislature enacted the Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act, N.Y. Exec. Law § 910. (the “NYS Coastal and Waterways Act”).

Coastal communities and communities on designated inland waterways are eligible to participate in the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. Coastal communities are communities on the Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, New York Harbor and the waters around New York City, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, Niagara River or the St. Lawrence River; eligible communities on designated inland waterways include communities located on an inland waterbody, such as a major lake, river or the State Canal, or other inland waterway designated by Article 42 of the Executive Law.

Among other things, the NYS Coastal and Waterways Act encourages local governments to participate in the State’s coastal management efforts by submitting local waterfront revitalization programs (“LWRPs”) to the Secretary of the DOS for approval. See N.Y. Exec. Law § 915(1).  Under the Act, any local government, which has any portion of its jurisdiction contiguous to the state’s coastal waters or inland waterways may submit an LWRP to the Secretary of State.  See, NYS Guidebook.  If an LWRP is approved by the Secretary , state agency actions in that municipality must also “be consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the local program.” Id. at § 915(8).

Unfortunately, the Act is silent regarding the relationship between the LWRP and local comprehensive land use plans and zoning.   However, to ensure that local development and waterfront revitalization plans are appropriately integrated into the local land use planning and zoning regulatory framework, many municipalities have incorporated their approved LWRPs into zoning regulations.  As a result, the LWRP policy document may serve as a legal foundation for zoning changes in part, due to their incorporation into the comprehensive plan.  By doing so, municipalities are able to effectively provide implementation mechanisms that support the principles and goals delineated in the waterfront plan through the use of their zoning powers.  See generally, Bonnie Briar Syndicate, Inc. v. Town of Mamaroneck, 94 N.Y.2d 96, (1999), 

The Department of State’s Division of Local Government provides training assistance to municipalities relating to zoning procedures in addition to other practical legal and technical advise.   See, www.dos.state.ny.us/lgss.

 

Petitioners, residents and nearby occupants (“Petitioners”), commenced a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action against the Planning Board of the Village of Tuckahoe (“Board”) and others in Murphy v. Planning Board of Tuckahoe (Sup. Ct. Westchester County 2017), to annul a negative declaration issued by the Board. The Board initially issued a conditional negative declaration (“CND“) for a project to construct a hotel, restaurant and parking lot (“Project”) at a former marble quarry and dump site (“Site”). Petitioners filed suit after the Board amended its CND to a negative declaration.

The Site had been a quarry from the late 1800s until the 1930s, after which private entities and municipalities used the Site for dumping. In 2014, the project’s developer, Bilwin Development Affiliates, LLC (“Developer”), conducted environmental testing which revealed concentrations of volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds and inorganic compounds at the Site. The Developer applied for admission into the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program (“BCP”), which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) accepted. During plan preparation for the BCP, the Developer submitted an application to the Board for site plan approval for the Project; and the Board declared itself lead agency for SEQRA review.

In July 2015, after its review, the Board issued a draft conditional negative declaration (“CND”) with time for notice and comment. The Board ultimately adopted the CND in September 2015, categorizing the Project as an unlisted action with the condition that the Developer meet all DEC and Department of Health requirements.

Before and after issuance of the CND, the Developer – in conjunction with the DEC and the Board – performed additional Site investigations and prepared plans for remediation and containment. The final plans for the Project included remediation specifications for the contaminated soil, a community air monitoring plan and construction of a hotel and parking lot as a Site cap. The DEC determined that the remediation plan would eliminate or mitigate all significant threats to public health and the environment presented by contamination.

In October 2016, after a number of public meetings and comments, the Board amended the CND to a negative declaration based upon the DEC’s determination, the remediation plans and other documents in the record. This amendment occurred over a year after the issuance of the draft CND (July 2015). Petitioners sued to annul this decision claiming, among other things, that: (1) SEQRA regulations do not allow the amendment or rescission of a CND unless the lead agency later determines a positive declaration is appropriate; and, (2) the lead agency failed to take a “hard look” at evaluating the environmental impact of the methods to be used in removing contaminated soil and monitoring contaminants. Petitioners also challenged the issuance of the CND.

First, although SEQRA regulations require rescission of a negative declaration or CND if new substantive information or changes cause the lead agency to determine a significant adverse environmental impact may result, the regulations do not prohibit amendments to a CND that remove conditions. 6 NYCRR § 617.7(d)(2), (f)(1). Moreover, SEQRA regulations permit a lead agency, at its discretion, to amend a negative declaration (a CND is a type of negative declaration) at any time prior to the decision to approve an action. 6 NYCRR § 617.7(e). Therefore, the Board was allowed to amend or rescind the CND.

Second, with respect to excavating the contaminants, Petitioners argued that the proposed methods to remediate and monitor were unsafe. Notably, Petitioners did not argue that the proposed methods would have an adverse environmental impact. Petitioners cited their experts’ methods and opinions, which the Board already reviewed during the comment period. The Court held that, at best, Petitioners merely indicated a disagreement between Petitioners’ experts and the Board as to the preferred methods to remediate and monitor – which is not grounds to overturn the Board’s decision to issue the negative declaration.

Lastly, the Court held that Petitioners’ challenge to the underlying CND was untimely. The draft CND was published on July 21, 2015, the period of limitations began to run thirty (30) days later on August 20, 2015, and expired four (4) months later on December 20, 2015. Petitioners could not attack the underlying CND eleven (11) months past the period of limitations by virtue of seeking to annul a later amendment to that CND.

Based upon the foregoing, and other reasons, the Court dismissed these challenges.

In Miranda Holdings v. Town Board of Town of Orchard Park, ____ N.Y.S. 3d, ____, 2017 WL 2884633 (4th Dept. July 7, 2017), Petitioner, Miranda, proposed a commercial structure that included a restaurant with a drive-through window. The Town Board was not happy.  Not only did the Board improperly declare the proposed restaurant with a drive-through as a Type I action under SEQRA, but also it required a full-blown EIS.  Further,  the Town enacted a local law specifically declaring that, going forward, all restaurants with a drive-through would be categorized as Type I actions.

Although the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s determination that that law does not allow the Town to reclassify actions in a manner that is contrary to the DEC classification, the Court, without any real explanation, remitted the matter back to the Town for further findings consistent with its opinion.

In Miranda’s favor, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision to invalidate the local law, which reclassified all restaurants with a drive-through as Type I actions wholly inconsistent with the DEC’s Type II designation.

The Town’s Actions

At first, the Town determined that the project was an Unlisted action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and SEQRA Regulations. See, 6 NYCRR Part 617. The Town issued a “positive declaration” requiring that Miranda prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). A full-blown EIS is difficult, time consuming and expensive. Unsurprisingly, Miranda claimed that the proposed project was a Type II action under the regulations and, therefore, was exempt from all environmental review and from preparing an EIS. In response, the Town passed a resolution making a drive-through restaurant project a Type I action, so that it was presumed to require an EIS. Miranda sued, arguing that the Town (1) was out of bounds, (2) was not allowed to make the project a Type I action because by its nature, it is a Type II action and (3) could not require that Miranda prepare an EIS.

What a mess! The Court’s decision does not add a lot of clarity.

The Trial Court Decision and SEQRA

Like ancient Gaul, all SEQRA actions are divided into three parts – Type I, Type II and Unlisted. A Type I action “carries with it the presumption that it is likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and may require an EIS. Type II actions are just the opposite – they are exempt from environmental review under SEQRA and thus not only is an EIS not required, but no review is technically required. “Unlisted” actions are everything that is neither Type I nor Type II, thus allowing latitude in what additional review is necessary.

Most Type I and Type II projects are defined in the NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) Regulations. For example, all permits and variances regarding single-family homes are Type II actions. However, municipalities may also adopt their own lists of Type I and Type II actions, so long as they do not conflict with the DEC’s lists. In particular, a municipality “may not designate as Type I any action identified as a Type II” in the DEC Regulations.

One of the actions identified as a Type II under the DEC Regulations is a commercial facility (or extension) of up to 4,000 sq. ft., which otherwise meets zoning, such as use restrictions, setbacks or height limits. When the Town initially determined that the proposed drive-through restaurant was “Unlisted,” the developer argued that this 4000-sq. ft. commercial facility provision made the project a defacto Type II action exempt from SEQRA. The Town’s reaction in passing the local law was to make all drive-through facilities into Type I actions – spurring the developer’s lawsuit, claiming that the Town could not convert a Type II action into a Type I action.

The trial court decided in Miranda’s favor, holding that because a drive-through facility was a Type II action under SEQRA, the Town could not automatically make it a Type I action.

The Court acknowledged that the Regulations do not specifically list drive-through facilities as Type II actions. However, the SEQRA Handbook published by the DEC does mention fast food facilities as being within the contemplation of the 4,000 sq. ft. Type II and also gives as an example of a Type II, the expansion of a commercial restaurant where the project is less than 4,000 sq. ft. The Court also noted that the Final Generic Environmental Impact Study prepared by DEC in connection with the 1995 adoption of proposed amendments to the Regulations – including the 4,000 sq. ft. commercial project as a Type II – directly referenced a “drive-through window” as part of the commercial expansion that would be exempted if the 4,000 sq. ft. limitation were met. Therefore, the Court concluded that the DEC “contemplated restaurants with drive-through windows as Type II actions.”

The Appellate Division Determination

However – and here is the mystery – the Appellate Division held that the Supreme Court should not have found that the proposed restaurant was a “4,000 sq. ft.” Type II – without “a revised review” by the Town. What is there to review?

The Appellate Division may have had some empathy with the Town’s concerns and afforded it the opportunity to look more closely at the proposed project. More fundamentally, the “4,000 sq. ft.” Type II is very broad and can easily include projects that pose potential for significant impacts, like traffic and air quality. Despite the fact that the DEC determined that projects of this limited size “do not rise to the level of significance envisioned by [SEQRA] as requiring an EIS,” perhaps other aspects of the proposed development needed further review by the Town.

What the Appellate Division did unequivocally declare is that a municipality cannot reclassify a project from a Type II to a Type I, as this is prohibited under SEQRA.  Invalidation of the local law was upheld.

The bottom line lesson is that municipalities should address planning and zoning concerns for their ordinary development through zoning and planning; not by a short cut in trying to stretch environmental review beyond the DEC regulations specific to each project.

 

In People Theatres of N.Y. Inc. v. City of New York, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 04385, various owners of adult businesses (“Plaintiffs”) brought separate actions against the City of New York (“City”) based upon First Amendment challenges seeking relief against zoning ordinances that bar adult establishments from operating in, among other areas, all residential districts and most commercial and manufacturing districts (“Ordinance“). The cases were consolidated; and after the trial court’s initial determination, the cases experienced a complex procedural history, having been appealed to the Court of Appeals twice over the course of fifteen (15) years.  A comprehensive discussion of this case and its lengthy history can be found in this extended blog post.

Here, the Ordinance at issue sought to combat negative secondary impacts relating to sexually focused businesses, which impacts were  demonstrated in a 1994 study conducted by the City.  Whether and how the Ordinance applied to particular adult businesses was the impetus for prior litigation in 1995.  In 1998, the City created the so-called 60/40 rule.  Under this rule, any commercial establishment with at least 40% of its customer-accessible floor/cellar area or stock-in-trade used for adult purposes qualified as an “adult establishment” covered by the Ordinance.  Plaintiffs modified their businesses to comply with the 60/40 rule.   The City, however, believed that while many operators were achieving “technical compliance” with the rule, their compliance was a sham. According to the City, the businesses still primarily focused on sexually explicit activities or materials; and their non-explicit materials were an afterthought that did not generate sales.  To shore up enforcement, the City amended the Ordinance in 2001 to effectively eliminate the 60/40 rule (“2001 Amendments”).

The main issue in this case was the relationship between (1) the standard that applies to First Amendment challenges in the context of ordinances affecting adult uses, and (2) the burden of proof a municipality must meet in order to sustain such ordinances. The Court held that “intermediate scrutiny” applies in this type of First Amendment adult use zoning context, which requires that an ordinance be narrowly tailored to the municipality’s justified purpose and assure reasonable alternative avenues of communication.  When applying intermediate scrutiny, a court must balance the interests at stake while assessing a municipality’s factual judgments.  The burden of proof relative to the municipality’s factual judgments is “modest” (no pun intended) and akin to substantial evidence, which is accorded more deference than that given to administrative agencies.

As such, the standard of review in this case is intermediate scrutiny, while the burden of proof is similar to substantial evidence.

The governing legal precedent is set forth in Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc., 535 U.S. 425 (2002), wherein the Supreme Court set forth the three-part burden shifting test, which describes a municipality’s burden of proof to sustain its laws in the face of a First Amendment challenge.   First, the municipality must “fairly support” its rationale for the ordinance. Second, a challenger must cast direct doubt upon the rationale – either by (I) demonstrating the municipality’s evidence does not support the rationale, or (ii) furnishing evidence disputing the municipality’s factual findings. If the challenger cannot cast doubt, then the municipality wins. If the challenger is able to cast doubt, then the third step comes into play; and the burden shifts back to the municipality to supplement the record with evidence renewing support to justify the ordinance.

Here, after applying the Alameda three-prong test, the Court reversed the Appellate Division holding that  the lower court’s mechanical approach was improper and confused the ultimate standard of review (intermediate scrutiny) with the evidentiary burden (similar to substantial evidence) borne by the City. Because the third step of the Alameda analysis obliges a modest burden of proof akin to substantial evidence, it was an error for the lower courts to determine that the City failed to meet its burden.  In this instance, the City met its burden of showing continued focus on sexually explicit activities and materials by the Plaintiffs’ businesses – despite any 60/40 compliance. Therefore, the Appellate Division was reversed and the Ordinance was sustained.

The New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code (“Uniform Code”) sets forth uniform building and fire prevention standards for New York State.  Article 18 of the NYS Executive Law requires municipalities within the State to administer and enforce the Uniform Code within their boundaries. Executive Law §379(3) states, “…no municipality shall have the power to supersede, void, repeal or make more or less restrictive any provisions of this article or of rules or regulations made pursuant to [the Uniform Code].”

However, a municipality may adopt more stringent local standards provided it petitions the NYS Code Council for a determination of whether such local laws or ordinances are reasonably necessary because of special conditions prevailing within the local government and that such standards conform with accepted engineering and fire prevention practices and the purposes of the Uniform Code. Executive Law §383. The adoption of more stringent laws that have successfully petitioned the NYS Code Council are available at https://www.dos.ny.gov/dcea/mrls.html (the majority of which relate to sprinklers or fire prevention codes).

Whether a particular local law or regulation is superseded depends upon whether it is inconsistent or in conflict with provisions of the Uniform Code. Local laws enacted pursuant to other municipal powers for example, under zoning or wetlands protection, are recognized as legitimate areas for government regulation and may also regulate the construction and use of buildings in municipalities.

Not so subtle conflicts between zoning laws and the uniform code exist in many municipalities requiring that these laws be considered and applied together. For the most part, courts reject arguments claiming local laws are preempted by the Uniform Code or invalid based upon a failure of the municipality to appeal the local law to the NYS Code Council. Brockport Sweden Property Owners Ass’n v. Village of Brockport, 81 A.D.3d 1416, 917 N.Y.S.2d 481 (4th Dept. 2011)(rejecting that local law was preempted by Uniform Code); Catskill Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. v. Village of Suffern, 65 A.D.3d 1340, 886 N.Y.S.2d 214 (2d Dept. 2009)(finding OTB failed to establish that Village Code improperly superseded the Uniform Code); People v. Robles, 22 Misc.3d 140 (A), 881 N.Y.S.2d 366 (Sup.Ct. App. Term 2009)(rejecting claim that Uniform Code preempted the City of Glen Cove code on the merits, finding an expressed interest in statewide uniformity rather than an implied statement of preemption); People v. Oceanside Institutional Industries, Inc., 15 Misc. 3d 22, 833 N.Y.S.2d 350 (Sup. Ct. App Term 2007)(finding that Uniform Code and Nassau County Fire Prevention Ordinance can coexist and applying more stringent sections of codes in conflict).

With the advent of Airbnb and like services, short term rental regulation has become a hot topic on the East End. A review of the occupancy standards in local rental codes and the Uniform Code for single family residences provides a noteworthy example of the local municipality/state regulation inconsistency.

Municipalities use the definition of “family” to limit the number of occupants permitted in single family residences and thereby control the use of homes in residential zoning districts. On the East End, Southampton and East Hampton Towns have used the definition of family to limit the number of persons occupying a rental property under their rental codes. See Southampton Town Code Chapter 270 and East Hampton Town Code Chapter 199  limiting the definition of family to include five or less unrelated persons living together (Southampton) or four or less living together as a single housekeeping unit (East Hampton).   Alternatively, both codes allow an unlimited number of persons that are related by blood, marriage, or legal adoption to reside together provided they live as a single housekeeping unit.

In addition to Town regulations addressing and limiting single family residence occupancy, the New York State Property Maintenance Code regulates occupancy by limiting the number of occupants per square foot per bedroom. Specifically, Property Maintenance Code §404.4.1 requires that “every bedroom occupied by one person shall contain at least 70 square feet of floor area, and every bedroom occupied by more than one person shall contain at least 50 square feet of floor area for each occupant thereof.”

The Property Maintenance Code does not define family but only references occupant which is defined as “an individual living or sleeping in a building.” Therefore, even if the group of persons renting a home in Southampton or East Hampton qualify as family and are not limited under the rental code definitions, compliance with the Property Maintenance Code is still required (notably, East Hampton and Southampton eventually codified the same restrictions). This section of the property maintenance code specifically addresses overcrowding issues. To that end, the Property Maintenance Code also prevents a bedroom from being used as the only means of access or egress to another bedroom; each bedroom must have access to a bathroom without passing through another bedroom; and bedrooms must comply with the requirements for light, ventilation, room area, ceiling height, room widths etc.

Other examples of perceived conflicts include occupancy standards set forth for commercial structures and restaurants in the County Health Department Codes, Uniform Code and local laws; third stories or mezzanine laws and restrictions; standards for bedrooms in basements; and new energy codes including LEED, Energy Star or other ratings systems embraced in local laws that could require higher standards than the Uniform Code. Upon adoption of such local laws, petitions to the NYS Code Council for approval are recommended. See 3 N.Y. Zoning Law and Practice §32A:35, State Preemption of Local Laws, Patricia E. Salkin, November 2016 update.

Ultimately, the Uniform Code and local municipal codes must be read and applied together to ensure compliance.

On June 28, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that a tenant has standing to challenge the definition of “Family” as set forth in the Freeport Village Code.

In Tomasulo v. Village of Freeport, ___A.D.3d___, the Village commenced a criminal proceeding against non-party property owner, William Goodhue, Jr. (owner), alleging that the tenancy between Tomasulo (tenant) and the owner violated sections 171-1 and 210-3 of the Freeport Village Code. The tenant had resided in a single family home with the owner of the home and two other non-related persons. This arrangement violated the definition of “Family” in the Village Code. As a result of the criminal proceeding, the owner commenced an eviction proceeding against Tomasulo.

In response to the eviction proceeding, Tomasulo commenced an Article 78 proceeding against the Village challenging the constitutionality of the definition of “Family” contained in Village Code sections 171-1 and 210-3.  The trial court converted the Article 78 proceeding to a complaint and granted the Village’s motion for summary judgment holding that Tomasulo lacked standing to seek a declaration as to the “constitutionality of the disputed portions of the Village Code” because Tomasulo had “not been injured or threatened with injury as a result of those provisions . . . and [Tomasulo] failed to adequately allege the existence of a justiciable controversy.”

In reversing the trial court, the Second Department stated that Tomasulo “demonstrated a ‘threatened injury to [his] protected right’ to his tenancy in the owner’s house . . . such that he has adequately shown ‘an interest sufficient to constitute standing to maintain the action.'”

Finding that Tomasulo’s pending eviction proceeding demonstrated a “present, rather than hypothetical, contingent or remote, prejudice to [him] . . . [the Court declared that the] Village did not establish, prima facie, its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.”

 

The State liquor law preempts  local municipalities from restricting hours of operation for businesses selling alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption.   Accordingly, local municipalities should use caution when imposing conditions upon establishments regulated by the State Liquor Authority and would be wise to consider alternative ways to manage late hours accompanied by public imbibing.

shutterstock_542466670In February 2017, the United States District Court for the Western District of New York issued a decision in Obsession Sports Bar & Grill, Inc. v. City of Rochester involving State law preemption of local laws limiting hours of operation for certain businesses such as bars and restaurants.  The federal Obsession case involved section 1983  claims following successful litigation in State Court. Although the federal Obsession case addressed constitutional claims only,  the decision casted stark attention upon the legal precedent set forth in the underlying State Court case, wherein the Fourth Department upheld the trial court’s holding that the State’s liquor laws preempted the City of Rochester (“City“) from restricting Obsession Sports Bar & Grill’s (“Obsession Sports Bar“) hours of operation.  Id.

In August 2011, Obsession Sports Bar obtained a liquor license from the State Liquor Authority authorizing the retail sale of alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption of alcoholic beverages at its bar and grill.  Under the State Alcoholic Beverages Control Law (“ABC Law“), as amended by Monroe County local law, persons holding liquor licenses are permitted to sell alcohol, on-premises, Monday through Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.  In addition, these establishments may remain open an additional one-half hour to permit customers to consume their beverages, i.e. until 2:30 a.m.

Obsession Sports Bar’s business was located in the City’s C-1 zoning district, which permits small-scale commercial uses and restricts evening hours of operation for restaurants and bars to 11:00 p.m.  Although the City partially granted Obsession Sports Bar’s variance by permitting the establishment to remain open until 12:00 a.m. Monday through Thursday and until 2:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, the City’s local laws still forced Obsession Sports Bar to close several hours earlier than required by the ABC Law, as well as earlier than similar businesses located in neighboring zoning districts.

In November 2012, Obsession Sports Bar commenced a state court Article 78 proceeding against the City alleging that the ABC Law preempted the local ordinance vis-à-vis hours of operations.   The City argued  that the State law did not preempt the ordinance because the ordinance did not directly address the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages.  The trial court found in favor of Obsession Sports Bar holding that the City’s local ordinance was an impermissible exercise of municipal zoning power and null and void in the face of the ABC Law’s conflicting and preemptive provisions.  The Fourth Department unanimously affirmed; and in 2014, leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals was denied.

Although Obsession Sports Bar may have prevailed in the State court with respect to the pre-emption question,  the federal court ultimately concluded that the City did not violate Obsession Sports Bar’s constitutional rights because Obsession Sports Bar did not show that the City’s actions were arbitrary, conscience-shocking or oppressive in the constitutional sense.  Despite this holding, the Court did note that the City may have been negligent. The Court opined that municipalities could and should consider alternative means to address the potential adverse effects of bars and restaurants that operate in the later evening hours.  To placate opposition to development, redevelopment and applications of the like, municipalities should consider alternative regulations, including but not limited to outdoor seating restrictions, light pollution, kitchen hour limitations and parking limits.

images7PKZX7LEIn this post, which is the second segment of a three-part series, we will highlight the various ways that local governments facing fiscal challenges have turned to imposing fees related to the administration of their zoning, subdivision and other land development ordinances to generate additional revenue.  Such fees are authorized by law and can be justified on the basis that those who derive the benefit from a land use application should bear the cost to review that application, rather than the taxpayers.  However, many municipalities on Long Island are imposing new administrative review fees, or increasing the amount of existing fees, that require applicants to pay amounts that are not reasonably commensurate with the cost of the services performed.  Excessive administrative review fees are subject to legal challenge as an illegal “back-door tax.”

Administrative Review Fees

A local government, as part of its regulatory authority, may establish fees for the payment of the expenses to administer a regulatory program. Pursuant to such authority, governmental entities typically charge fees in connection with applications associated with land development to recoup the costs involved with the review of said applications and associated plans to insure that the proposed work complies with all applicable laws, ordinances and regulations. However, while municipalities are authorized to impose review fees, the courts have made clear that the fee amount that can be charged is limited to that which is “reasonably necessary” to undertake the regulatory review involved. In applying the “reasonably necessary” principle, courts do not require exact congruence between the fees charged and the government’s cost to review an application; but there must be some rational underpinning for the charges levied. In other words, the review fees charged must be commensurate with the actual expense of the application being processed and should not be exacted for revenue-generating purposes or to offset the cost of general governmental functions.

Nassau County’s GML § 239-f Review Fee

In 2015, the Nassau County Legislature adopted Ordinance No. 176-215, which pertains to fees charged by the Nassau County Department of Public Works (“NCDPW”). According to the ordinance, certain fees charged by Nassau County “no longer cover the costs required to administer and process the services for which they are charged.” Therefore, the ordinance states that it is “necessary to fix such fees so that they cover the administrative costs associated with the operation of services of the departments.”

Among the fees imposed by Ordinance No. 176-215 are those charged to review applications for building permits, pursuant to General Municipal Law (“GML”) § 239-f, that are forwarded from the various town, cities and villages. GML § 239-f grants the NCDPW the authority to review applications for building permits for developments having frontage on a Nassau County road, but only insofar as the proposed building, including curb cuts or other means of access, may be related to the County road. Where the application is for a development with an anticipated construction cost of $25,000 or more, the initial review fee is $1,500. However, if the anticipated cost of construction is greater than $250,000, the developer is required to pay a fee equal to .75% of the estimated construction value in addition to the initial review fee.

While there clearly is authority for the NCDPW to charge reasonable administrative review fees to process building permit applications for developments that front on a County road, these fees are vulnerable to legal challenge because the amount of the fees charged, at least for developments costing $250,000 or more, is not commensurate with the cost of the services performed. Nor do they bear any relationship to the development’s impact on County roads or other facilities. To illustrate this point, the fee charged to review a building permit for a 150,000 square foot membership warehouse store (such as a Sam’s Club, Costco, or BJ’s), which is typically a simple concrete block building with inexpensive fixtures and finishes, is likely to be significantly less than the fee charged for a building of the same size and constructed on the same site for use by a retailer that elects to construct its building with better and more expensive materials, fixtures and finishes. Presumably, both retailers’ uses would have the same impact on the adjacent County roads and facilities, but the retailer whose building will cost more to construct will be required to pay more to have its plans reviewed by NCDPW. Aside from being patently unfair (and perhaps illegal), the NCDPW’s review fee structure encourages developers to construct buildings using inferior, less expensive materials.

NCDPW’s building permit review fees, at least when they are based on the cost of construction, appear to be vulnerable to attack because they are not calculated based on the NCDPW’s cost to review an application, or the impact that a proposed development may have on County facilities. Instead, they are based on the amount of the investment that a developer chooses to make in the site. Moreover, according to the Nassau County Legislature’s Review of the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget & Multi-Year Plan, these fees also appear to be imposed for revenue generating purposes and to offset the cost to operate the NCDPW. Indeed, while the NCDPW revenues have generally decreased since 2015, the County’s current budget projects nearly a 300% increase in revenue from GML § 239-f building permit review in 2017.

To date, the NCDPW’s building permit review fees have not been challenged by developers, who instead simply pay the fees and capitalize them into the land value. However, these increased costs are being passed on to consumers who ultimately pay more for housing, goods and services. While these fees are helping Nassau County balance its budget, they are also contributing to the high cost of living that is driving people away at an alarming rate.

In the next and final segment of this series, we will look at real property recording fees, which have increased significantly in Nassau and Suffolk Counties in recent years. These fees are being used as yet another revenue-generating device that some consider to be nothing more than an illegal tax.