As New York State land use practitioners and those interested in land use development, we are all well aware of the perils of failing to refer a land use application to the governing county land use commission. When discussing the referral process with my colleagues and those responsible for General Municipal Law 239-m referrals, such as town and village zoning and planning boards, their board members and their support staff, the usual response is “We refer everything.”
This pervasive misunderstanding of what types of land use applications must be referred, and when they must be referred, leads not only to delays in processing applications for public hearings, but also overloads county land use commissions, leading to delays in land use decisions and diverting the county planning commissions from their role in evaluating projects of countywide concern.
What is General Municipal Law 239-m?
General Municipal Law 239-m states in relevant part:
“(a) “[t]he following proposed actions shall be subject to the referral requirements of this section, if they apply to real property set forth in paragraph (b) of this subdivision:
(i) adoption or amendment of a comprehensive plan pursuant to section two hundred seventy-two-a of the town law, section 7-722 of the village law or section twenty-eight-a of the general city law;
(ii) adoption or amendment of a zoning ordinance or local law;
(iii) issuance of special use permits;
(iv) approval of site plans;
(v) granting of use or area variances;
(vi) other authorizations which a referring body may issue under the provisions of any zoning ordinance or local law.
(b) The proposed actions set forth in paragraph (a) of this subdivision shall be subject to the referral requirements of this section if they apply to real property within five hundred feet of the following:
(i) the boundary of any city, village or town; or
(ii) the boundary of any existing or proposed county or state park or any other recreation area; or
(iii) the right-of-way of any existing or proposed county or state parkway, thruway, expressway, road or highway; or
(iv) the existing or proposed right-of-way of any stream or drainage channel owned by the county or for which the county has established channel lines; or
(v) the existing or proposed boundary of any county or state owned land on which a public building or institution is situated; or
(vi) the boundary of a farm operation located in an agricultural district, as defined by article twenty-five-AA of the agriculture and markets law, except this subparagraph shall not apply to the granting of area variances.” Id.
When Does General Municipal Law 239-m Apply?
When sections 239-m (a) and (b) are read in conjunction with each other, only specific actions must be referred, and only when said specific actions are located within 500 feet of designated boundaries. Despite the clear language of the statute, it has become routine for towns and villages to refer all land use actions of any kind wherever located.
In an effort to combat unnecessary referrals, the Suffolk County Planning Commission adopted legislation providing towns and villages located in Suffolk County with an opportunity to enter into an Inter-Municipal Agreement (“IMA”) whereby specific types of land use applications are per se designated applications of local determination and do NOT require referral to the Suffolk County Planning Commission.
On September 3, 2008, the Suffolk County Planning Commission adopted legislation which specifically exempts the following land use applications from GML 239-m referral requirements:
1. All area variances associated with single-family residences;
2. Change of one permitted use to another with no changes in parking requirements (i.e. retail to office);
3. Minor additions less than 1,000 square feet with no change to use or occupancy;
4. Site plan applications proposing less than 5,000 square feet of new or renovated floor area or less than 10,000 square feet of land disturbance;
5. Exception: Actions that have been given a Positive Declaration pursuant to SEQR or actions involving property abutting state or county parkland, the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound, any bay in Suffolk County or estuary of any of the foregoing bodies of water shall be subject to the full review process.
Spreading the Word about Inter-Municipal Cooperation
Despite this clear exemption, and although the Towns of Babylon, Islip, Huntington, Riverhead and Southold have entered into IMAs with Suffolk County Planning, many other towns and villages have not. When discussing the availability of the IMA option with colleagues and town and village officials, many are not even aware of this option. This option is also available in Nassau County.
So, now that you are aware of the IMA option and how valuable this option can be in moving land use applications more quickly and without unnecessary municipal review, we land use practitioners must stick together and spread the word. If you are a town or village official or a planning or zoning board member, please investigate this option with your governing county land use commission.
As land use attorneys and those participating in the development community know, the land use approval process is subject to many layers of oversight and review. It is incumbent upon us to spread the word that one layer of review can be eliminated by implementing an IMA with your specific county. In so doing, not only will the overall time for a land use application decrease at the town and village level, but also, county planning commissions will be able to commit the necessary resources to evaluate projects of countywide concern, as they are specifically designed to do.