Measuring the height of a structure may seem straightforward in the abstract, but sometimes in practice that is not the case. Take, for instance, a recent Southampton Town Zoning Board application – Matter of the Application of Hermann – where the height of a house was the subject of a challenge in front of the Zoning Board.

During construction of a residential dwelling, several stop work orders were issued and lifted based upon evidence submitted to the Building Inspector from different surveyors attempting to determine the height of the single family dwelling. Mostly the argument surrounded an interpretation of the term “average natural grade”, which is the point of measurement on the ground in Southampton. This case was complicated by two factors. First, the property was disturbed from the construction of a prior dwelling demolished to make way for the new dwelling. During the demolition the grade was lowered to accommodate a larger basement. Second, there was a ten foot change in slope from one side of the house to the other.

SOUTHAMPTON TOWN ZONING CODE

Southampton Town Zoning Code provides specific guidance for measuring the height of a structure in §330-5 “Definitions” which defines “Height of a Structure”. Section B of that definition states:

“In all other cases, the vertical distance measured from the average natural elevation of the existing natural grade (before any fill has been or is proposed to be placed thereon) as established on a plan prepared by a licensed professional surveyor, at and along the side of the building or structure fronting on the nearest street to the highest point of the highest roof or, in the case of a structure, to the highest point. On all flag lots and lots utilizing a right-of-way, the flagpole access or right-of-way shall be considered the street front.” (Emphasis added)

So, the challenge to the property owner was twofold:

  1. Determine a reasonable methodology to establish “average natural grade” on a previously disturbed lot; and
  2. Apply that methodology to a property that contained a significant slope.

PRIOR ZONING BOARD DECISIONS

Fortunately, the Zoning Board had decided two previous cases involving height variances that centered on determining average natural grade. In the Matter of the Application of Schwartz, the Board initially observed that determining the average natural grade of a parcel of property was an inexact science. Next, the Board determined that using spot elevation data and the Topographic Map of the Five Eastern Towns was a reasonable methodology in determining average natural grade. Finally, the Board determined that a single measurement or data point along a building line was insufficient and that at least two data points must be used to determine average natural grade which would then be the basis on which to measure height.

Approximately a year and a half later, the Zoning Board decided a similar application, the Matter of the Application of Rubin. In Rubin, the Board followed Schwartz by making these findings:

  • Measuring contours and topography is an inexact science.
  • Site specific topographical data is the most accurate piece of information necessary to determine average natural grade.
  • Interpolation of data derived from survey maps and site-specific topographical data is a reasonable way to determine grade issues.

STANDARD

Applying the findings in Schwartz and Rubin, site-specific elevation data combined with the most recent contour mapping available will allow a licensed surveyor to determine contour lines and use these contour lines to determine height.

APPLICATION TO HERMANN

The property owner in Hermann engaged a surveyor who used the following data to determine average natural grade:

  • 1956 Topographical Map prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard
  • 1973 Photographs of Original Foundation under Construction
  • 1974 Five Eastern Towns Topographical Map
  • Actual field data
  • 2007 LiDAR Contour Map
  • 2012 LiDAR Contour Map
  • Field Observation of Surrounding Topography of adjacent lot
  • 2015 Under Construction Photographs of the Current Foundation
  • Actual Height Measurement

Using that information, the surveyor made a determination that the house exceeded the permitted height, and the property owner had to obtain a variance. The request for relief was significantly less than that alleged by the neighbor, and the variance request was ultimately granted. In the Hermann decision, the Board found that the methodology used by the property owner’s surveyor to be the most meaningful and likely accurate because it incorporated the above data.

CONCLUSION

To determine the height of a building – at least in Southampton – a surveyor must consider all of the data available, especially when the property is already disturbed. It is also suggested that a property owner or surveyor provide the Building Inspector with the methodology used to determine average natural grade in advance of construction, so violations of height restriction are avoided.

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.

 

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.

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.