On July 7, 2017, Judge William G. Ford issued a decision in the case Matter of 7-Eleven, Inc. v. Town of Babylon, Supreme Court, Suffolk County, 2017 NY Slip Op 31467(U) , in which the Town was excoriated for its mishandling of a site plan approval and building permit application. Although the applicant prevailed in court, it took five years to get there, during which the site remained vacant and unproductive. Here’s how it unfolded.
In July 2012, 7-Eleven applied for a building permit and certificate of occupancy for a site in Wyandanch. The property contained a defunct automobile repair shop, garage and canopies for an abandoned gasoline service station. 7-Eleven proposed to tear down this eyesore and improve it with a 24-hour 7-Eleven store, a use it contended was as-of-right. The Town, however, had other ideas. The Town’s Building Division initially provided comments in July 2012, which were followed by comments from other Town divisions, including traffic safety, engineering, the fire marshal, environmental control, highways and planning that were issued from July to October 2012.
The Town’s Traffic Division issued comments in October 2012 in which it objected to the project on the grounds that there was insufficient on-site customer truck parking, an inadequate truck loading zone, and inadequate setbacks for trash enclosure and mechanical equipment, which it claimed were too close to residential dwellings. It also raised concerns about an existing 7-Eleven, located within ½ mile of the project. It had issues about ingress and egress that it believed would cause increased traffic and parking on nearby residential streets.
7-Eleven responded to these various comments in February 2013, when it submitted architectural drawings and a revised site plan as well as comments prepared by its expert engineering consultant. This submittal addressed the issues raised by the Town Traffic Division. 7-Eleven included three customer truck parking spaces and a dedicated delivery truck loading zone. 7-Eleven proposed to limit all deliveries to box trucks and modified the trash enclosure and loading zone to decrease noise and lessen visual impacts.
The Town responded with further comments which were provided to 7-Eleven in December 2013. In particular, the Town’s Traffic Division objected to the revised site plan.
The Town Planning Board then held a public hearing at which further revisions to the site plan were requested. These revisions concerned traffic flow and several covenants and restrictions that would (1) prohibit tractor trailer truck deliveries, (2) limit delivery hours, (3) prohibit truck parking on residential streets, (4) limit hours of operation, and (5) require a security protocol. 7-Eleven agreed to all the covenants and restrictions except it would not agree to limit the hours of operation. The public hearing was left open for the receipt of a traffic study. That study determined that vehicle traffic would be relegated to the major thoroughfare (Straight Path) and would not have a major impact on pedestrian or bus stop safety.
The general public also weighed in on the proposal, via written comments, petitions and letters, objecting to the project. These opponents were concerned with increased traffic and crime and decreased residential property values and public safety. The operator of the other 7-Eleven, located ½ mile away, also submitted comments, which the court noted “would later loom large” in the Town’s subsequent handling of the application. This operator contended that siting the store so close to his existing store would oversaturate the market and lead to increased competition. He also noted that his donation of surplus food to local charities would decrease and also questioned enforcement of the tractor trailer prohibition.
Although 7-Eleven objected, the public record was held open. During this extended comment period, the Town’s Traffic Division raised concerns about truck parking and traffic. It announced in February 2014 that it would not take any further action to review the application unless and until 7-Eleven undertook further site plan revisions to address its concerns.
In response, 7-Eleven made additional revisions to its site plan. These were shared with the Traffic Division in April 2014 and formally filed with the Town in May 2014. Among other things, 7-Eleven confirmed its commitment to limit deliveries to box trucks, and modified its customer parking and loading zone. It also closed off access from certain streets and proposed to install fencing that would reduce vehicle headlights shining into residential areas. It relocated the trash enclosure and mechanical equipment further away from residential neighbors and eliminated a pedestrian walkway near a residential street.
In July 2014, the Town Traffic Division issued another memo, this time finding fault with the dedicated customer truck parking stall.
7-Eleven filed its final site plan in May 2015. It also filed engineered drawings,traffic and planning studies, and an appraisal, all dated in April 2015. 7-Eleven also filed an affidavit from its senior regional director and requested that the hearing be finally closed. The affidavit rebutted the comments of the operator of the other 7-Eleven. It also submitted an affidavit from its engineer in which it contended that its proposed use was superior to seven other similarly-situated commercial uses approved by the Town in the preceding two years.
In September 2015, the Planning Board held a meeting and adjourned the applications. Thereafter, in February 2016, additional comments were issued by the Town’s Traffic Division in which it noted its agreement with the operator of the other 7-Eleven and rejected the opinion of 7-Eleven’s regional director about truck traffic, parking and impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhood. But that was not the end of the Town’s Traffic Division’s comments. Two months later, in April 2016, the Town’s Traffic Division issued a memo to the effect that the proposed covenants and restrictions were insufficient. As a result, the Town requested that 7-Eleven submit yet another revised site plan.
At this point, 7-Eleven had had it; and in June 2016, it sent a demand letter to the Town calling for an up or down determination on its application. In August 2016, the Planning Board denied the application. The rationale given for the denial was the safety of the residential neighborhoods that abutted the site on two sides, the adverse impact on traffic and parking, and public safety concerns.
Not surprisingly, 7-Eleven sued.
The Town claimed its decision should be upheld by the Court on the grounds it was rational and based on substantial evidence. The Town also contended its decision was not final, contending that 7-Eleven’s lawsuit was not ripe because it failed to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for variance relief. The Court didn’t buy these arguments.
The Court first discussed the ripeness issue. It noted that a land use and zoning matter is final when the “development plan has been submitted, considered and rejected by the governmental entity with the power to implement zoning regulations” but that an applicant “will be excused from obtaining a final decision if pursuing an appeal to a zoning board of appeals or seeking a variance would be futile.” Thus, resort to a zoning board of appeals is unnecessary if it “lacks discretion to grant variances or dug in its heels and made clear that all such applications will be denied.” The Court noted that 7-Eleven sought site plan review and a building permit to demolish existing structures and to construct a new building. Neither was granted by the Town, essentially stymying the project. Moreover, since the application was as-of-right, and the setbacks the Town claimed were applicable did not apply to this corner lot, there is no variance that it needed from the Town Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Court then took aim at the Town’s discretion argument. In rejecting it, the Court noted that the Town gave into public pressure about traffic, crime and property values plummeting. The Court found that the Town improperly ignored the concessions made by 7-Eleven to ameliorate the supposed impacts. It also focused on the multiple revisions and the lack of evidence in the record supporting the Town’s decision.
7-Eleven has the financial wherewithal to see a project through, despite the years it takes to get it approved on Long Island. Other applicants may not have the ability to withstand such an extended and expensive proposition to open a business, redevelop a blighted site and revitalize a neighborhood.