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Generally, when a majority of the members of a zoning board of appeals (ZBA) either votes in favor of or against an action, the board is considered to have acted.  What if a ZBA is unable to take any kind of majority action, ending up with a tie vote?  The result hinges on the dual jurisdictions many ZBAs enjoy.

All ZBAs are directly given appellate jurisdiction by state law; however, where a local law or ordinance grants a ZBA additional powers, the additional powers are referred to as “original jurisdiction.”  Examples of a ZBA’s original jurisdiction include the power to grant special use permits.

In Tall Trees Construction Corp. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Huntington, 97 NY2d 86 [2001], the Court of Appels  determined the effect of repeated tie votes by the Town of Huntington ZBA for variances.  The court held that “when a quorum of the Board is present and participates in a vote on an application, a vote of less than a majority of the Board is deemed a denial.”

This conclusion led the Legislature, in 2002,  to codify an amendment to Town Law § 267-a that added a new subsection entitled “Voting requirements.”  In particular, Town Law 267-a(13)(b) states:

“Default denial of appeal. In exercising its appellate jurisdiction only, if an affirmative vote of a majority of all members of the board is not attained on a motion or resolution to grant a variance or reverse any order, requirement, decision or determination of the enforcement official within the time allowed by subdivision eight of this section, the appeal is denied….” (emphasis added).

So, what happens when a ZBA casts a tie vote in an application for a special use permit?  Nothing, according to the Third Department’s recent decision in Matter of Alper Restaurant Inc. v. Town of Copake Zoning Board  Of Appeals, 2017 NY Slip Op 02871 [3d Dept 2017].  In Alper, the Court affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision that a 2-2 vote issued for a special use permit was a non-action, because there was no majority vote; and the ZBA was exerting its original jurisdiction over the applicant’s special use permit.  This enabled the ZBA to vote again on the same matter and grant it with a 3-2 vote.

Thus, an appeal or variance is considered to be denied by statute if a tie vote is cast when considering a variance. This is not so when the same board is voting on a special use permit.  A tie vote in connection with a special permit results in a non-action.  This begs the question of whether ZBA’s voting multiple times on special use permits is the desired result?

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.

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.

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.

mosqueOn December 31, 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp of the District of New Jersey authored a 57-page opinion granting partial summary judgment to plaintiffs, The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (“Islamic Society”) holding that defendants, the Township of Bernards (“Bernards”), violated Islamic Society’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).  The Bernards Planning Board denied Islamic Society’s site plan application seeking to construct a mosque in a residential zone on the basis that (1) a mosque is not considered a church under Bernards’ zoning code and (2)  Bernards’ parking ordinance was not adhered to.

FACTS

In November 2011, Islamic Society purchased property in a residential section of Bernards with the intention of constructing a 4,252 square foot mosque on the property.  The site plan called for 50 parking spaces based on estimated occupancy of 150 people.  The parking spaces provided were in compliance with Bernards’ parking ordinance applicable to churches at a ratio of 3:1 .

Over the course of three and a half years, Islamic Society’s site plan application underwent 39 meetings and was subjected to intense neighborhood opposition and scrutiny.    According to the decision, competing expert testimony was provided by parking experts and asserted that although Bernards does not, and has never, relied on the Institute of Transportation Engineers (“ITE”)  Parking Generation data,  Bernards required Islamic Society to apply the ITE data applicable to mosques, which estimated required parking spaces between 36 and 110.  Bernards compromised at 107 parking spaces, when in fact, only 50 were required under Bernards accepted church parking ratio of 3:1.

The rationale for the increased parking requirement rested on Bernards’ determination that a mosque is not a church, despite the fact that Bernards’ zoning code does not state that a mosque is not considered a church.  Bernards did not stop there.  Bernards went on to say that only Christian places of worship are considered  churches, and as a result thereof, not only was the 3:1 parking ratio not applicable to Islamic Society’s site plan application, but also, Bernards maintained discretion in reviewing Islamic Society’s application and essentially had unfettered discretion in determining parking requirements.

At the conclusion of all hearings and testimony, Bernards’ planning board denied the site plan application.  Islamic Society commenced an action in federal court alleging violations under RLUIPA.

DECISION

In granting partial summary judgment, the Court rejected Bernards’ position that mosques are not considered churches.   In fact, the Court specifically stated that a mosque or any place of religious worship, whether a church or not, is protected under RLUIPA.  Bernards’ unsupported determination that mosques are not considered churches violated Islamic Society’s rights under the Nondiscrimination Provision of RLUIPA.

Additionally, with respect to the increased parking, and Bernards’ position that it maintained unfettered discretion to determine parking requirements, the Court relied upon its determination that a mosque is entitled to the same protections as a church;  as such, the Bernard parking ordinance ratio of 3:1 should have been applied equally to Islamic Society as it had historically been applied to Christian and Baptist churches and synagogues that were previously approved in Bernards.  Further, the Christian, Baptist and Jewish places of worship were typically granted in less than six months, and in most instances, with less then four public hearings.

CONCLUSION

The decision in this 57-page case cannot be justly analyzed in a short blog post.  Given the state of our country at this time, when it comes to freedom of religion and the consequences that we suffer as a result of our differing beliefs, it would be a worthwhile allocation of any land use attorney’s time to read this decision.  If nothing else, it reminds us all that one of the basic tenets of our American freedoms is the freedom to be different and be accepted.

shutterstock_527190727In an effort to generate revenue without raising taxes, many municipalities on Long Island, and elsewhere in New York State, are turning to the use of various forms of land development fees to meet their fiscal challenges. In many cases, these fees can be legally and morally justified, such as when they offset the actual administrative costs of processing a land use application, or when a municipality must incur costs to provide additional public infrastructure and services to accommodate a new development. However, in their zeal to raise revenue, some local governments have ignored statutory and judicial authority that establish a narrow framework for collecting and using these fees, which may leave them exposed to a legal challenge.

In this post, which will be presented in multiple segments, we will highlight the various ways that local governments are using impact, administrative review and recording fees as a revenue-generating measure. We will review the propriety of these fees and discuss the potential impact that these fees can have on development, which is typically a good barometer of a community’s economic prosperity.  We will also discuss who ultimately pays these fees that translate into higher housing and other costs.

Local Impact Fees

Impact fees are one-time payments required by local governments in connection with new developments for the purpose of defraying some of the cost of constructing or improving the public infrastructure needed to serve them. Where authorized, such fees are used to shift the financial burden for additional capital improvements and services from taxpayers to private developers who are the beneficiaries of those improvements and services.

To be valid, there must be a “rational nexus” between the impact fee imposed and the infrastructure needs created by the new development. To satisfy the nexus test, the development must create a need for the new infrastructure; and the fee amount must be based on the extent to which the development benefits from the infrastructure. In other words, an impact fee cannot exceed the pro rata or proportionate share of the anticipated costs of providing the new development with the necessary infrastructure.

Roughly half the states have enacted enabling legislation authorizing the imposition of impact fees. New York, however, is not among them. In fact, a number of decisions by New York Courts cast serious doubt on whether municipalities can enact local impact fee legislation pursuant to home rule powers, or otherwise impose such fees on developers.

In the only impact fee case to reach New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals in 1989 invalidated the Town of Guilderland’s attempt to fund roadway and other transportation improvements under its Transportation Impact Fee Law (“TIFL”) in Albany Area Builder’s Association v. Town of Guilderland . While the Court did not actually rule on the validity of local impact fees, it concluded that the TIFL was impliedly preempted by the State Legislature’s uniform scheme to regulate highway funding set forth in the Town Law and Highway Law. This decision precludes the use of local impact fees to cover costs associated with roads, sewer, water hook-ups and other infrastructure for which State law already provides a comprehensive regulatory scheme for the financing of these improvements.

Notwithstanding the legal precedents, there are local governments on Long Island that continue to impose what amount to significant, but questionable, impact fees on developers. One such fee is the Town of Brookhaven’s Land Use Intensification Mitigation Fee.  The stated purpose is to mitigate any land use intensification associated with the approval of a change of zoning classification from a more restrictive to a less restrictive use through the acquisition of open space. Depending on the existing and proposed zoning classifications and the size of the site, the law has the potential for imposing significant fees on developers and other landowners within the Town.

While the stated goals of this fee law are undoubtedly laudable, the absence of specific enabling legislation authorizing this fee makes Brookhaven’s law susceptible to legal challenge. A Court could find that the fees charged are not commensurate with the potential demand for additional open space created by the less restrictive zoning and, therefore, fails the “rational nexus” test. A Court may also find that the Town Law provisions authorizing a municipality to require that a parkland be set aside, or impose a fee in lieu of parkland, in connection with site plan and subdivision applications impliedly preempts the Town’s fee law. Of course, it is also possible that a Court could uphold this fee, and Brookhaven’s law may become a model for future local impact fees in New York State.

To date, these fees have not been challenged by developers, who instead are simply paying the fees and capitalize them into the land value. However, depending on the nature of the development, these fees are being passed along by developers to new owners and renters of residential, commercial, industrial, office and retail space, and also to consumers who must ultimately pay more for retail goods and services. While these fees make it easier for a municipality to balance its budget, this short-term benefit pales in comparison to the significant negative impact that these fees can have by driving up the cost of living on Long Island and frustrating the market’s ability to deliver much-needed affordable housing.

In the next segment of this post, we will look at administrative review fees, which are another revenue-generating device used by local governments related to the processing of land use applications that are being assessed on developers, often without regard to the legal limitations on such fees.

At its January 10, 2017 meeting, the Town Board of the Town of Huntington held a public hearing to discuss its proposed ban on short-term rentals.  Several residents testified at the public hearing in opposition to the ban, explaining why short-term rentals are important to the Town.  A few residents explained that these short-term rentals helped them pay their bills and promoted tourism. Other residents explained that they would be homeless without access to short-term rentals as they allow these residents to remain in the area while house-hunting.  Other residents questioned the basis for the ban, asking the Town for evidence of “quality of life” issues allegedly raised by short-term rentals.  The Town reserved decision on the proposal.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Last April, my colleague Anthony Guardino blogged about the Town of Southold’s local law banning “transient rental properties”, which Southold defined as dwellings that are rented out for less than fourteen nights at a time.   Now the Town of Huntington, New York is considering enacting a similar local law.

Huntington’s Proposed Ban

house for rent shutterstock_84704473The Town of Huntington proposes to ban short-term rentals a/k/a “transient rental property” of less than 30 days. The proposal also would prohibit the issuance of rental permits to transient rental properties.    If you are interested in commenting on this proposal, you should attend the public hearing, which is scheduled for Tuesday evening, January 10, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. in Town Hall, located at 100 Main Street in Huntington.

According to the sponsors of the proposal, council members Mark Cuthbertson and Tracey Edwards, complaints have been received over the past year from neighbors of residences who rent out rooms on a short-term basis, raising quality of life issues. The rooms are often advertised on Airbnb, Home Away and VRBO websites. Town rental permits typically are not obtained for these units, meaning they are not certified as meeting Town Code requirements. The Town permits bed-and-breakfast facilities, (referred to as Bed-and-Breakfast Homestays in the Town Code), but these facilities require approval from the Town Board to lawfully operate.

Town of Islip’s Short-Term Rental Law

The Town of Islip enacted a local law on December 15, 2015 concerning transient rental property.  Under the Islip Town Code, a dwelling unit is presumed to be transient rental property if it is advertised on short-term rental websites and is offered for less than fourteen nights. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the definition excludes dwelling units located on Fire Island. (Islip Town Code § 68-649).  Islip requires a rental occupancy permit to lawfully rent out a dwelling unit and prohibits a rental occupancy permit being granted to transient rental property. (Islip Town Code § 68-650).

Village of Great Neck Estates Short-Term Rental Law

The Village of Great Neck Estates enacted a local law on October 10, 2016 that prohibits transient dwelling units in all zoning districts unless a transient dwelling unit permit is obtained from the Village.  Such permits only can be issued twice a year for any particular dwelling unit, must specify the proposed occupant on the application and are not transferrable to other occupants. (Village of Great Neck Estates Code § 230-22).  A transient dwelling unit covers a rental that lasts less than eight consecutive days, and a unit that is advertised on short-term rental websites is presumed to be a transient dwelling unit.

Stay tuned for an update after Tuesday’s public hearing.

IMG_0713At its November 17, 2016 meeting, the East Hampton Town Board (Town Board) unanimously adopted a local law that temporarily suspends the authority of the East Hampton Town Planning Board to grant certain site plan and subdivision approvals for properties located on or adjacent to Montauk Highway in Wainscott. The moratorium applies to non-residential Central Business or Commercial Industrial zoning districts or properties in residential zoning districts used for non-residential uses. The moratorium lasts for one year.

Purpose of Moratorium

The purpose of the moratorium is to allow the Town to complete its Wainscott Hamlet Study and to implement recommendations from that study. The Wainscott Hamlet Study will evaluate future commercial needs of the community in accordance with the goals set forth in the Town’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan.

According to the local law, Wainscott, as the entry point into the Town, experiences extremely high traffic volumes. In particular, traffic jams along Montauk Highway are causing impacts to residential neighborhoods, as motorists seek alternate routes through the area. The Town claims that development of commercial property along Montauk Highway in Wainscott will exacerbate the traffic logjams and increase risks to pedestrians.

The Town anticipates that the study will recommend the creation of a walkable hamlet center, rather than the current sprawl of commercial sites along Montauk Highway. The Town is concerned that without the moratorium, any traffic mitigation and pedestrian safety recommendations arising from the study will not be implementable if development continues unabated in the interim.

Exemptions

The local law contains exemptions. If a site plan or subdivision application has undergone a public hearing and has been approved prior to the effective date of the moratorium, the project can proceed.  In addition, the local law contains an undue hardship exemption. In order to qualify for the undue hardship exemption, the applicant has to demonstrate to the Town Board that (1) the failure to grant the exemption will cause the applicant undue hardship that is substantially greater than the harm to the general public by granting the exemption, (2) the proposal will not have adverse effects on the Town’s goals, and (3) the proposal is in harmony with the existing character of the Town.

It will be interesting to see what recommendations emanate from the study and which ones the Town ultimately implements.