General Municipal Law §239-m requires that before taking action on a land use application, a municipal agency like a Zoning Board of Appeals or Planning Board must refer the application to a county or regional planning commission for its recommendation. This referral and receipt of comments and recommendations from the planning commission is no longer just a nicety. It is jurisdictional.
Any variance or site plan or other land use approval is null and void if the approving agency has not followed this referral procedure. e.g., Ernalex Constr. Realty Corp v. City of Glen Cove, 681 N.Y.S. 2d 296 [2d Dept.1998]; 24 Franklin Ave. R.E. Corp. v. Heaship, 30 N.Y.S.3d 695 [2d Dept. 2016].
Moreover, the statute of limitations does not even begin to run to challenge an agency action (the grant of a variance, for example) if the variance is jurisdictionally defective because the referral procedure was not followed. e.g., Hampshire Mgt. Co., No. 20, LLC v. Feiner, 860 N.Y.S.3d 714 [2d Dept. 2008].
So, what happens if an agency grants a variance without following the referral procedure and then, perhaps realizing its mistake, grants an amended variance where it does make the proper referral to the planning commission?
In Fichera v. NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, 74 N.Y.S.3d 422 [4th Dept. 2018], the Fourth Department held that the original and the amended variances were both null and void. The applicant had received variances from the Town’s ZBA, and permits from the DEC needed to conduct mining. The ZBA and the applicant argued that the time to challenge the original variance had run and that the amended variance was perfectly fine because the referral process had been diligently followed.
The Appellate Division disagreed. First, the Court applied the “old news” rules above to find that the original variance was jurisdictionally defective because of the failure to follow the referral process. Then, they also held that the same jurisdictional defect tolled the statute of limitations so that the challenge to the original variance was timely. Therefore, the original variance was vacated as jurisdictionally defective.
What about the amended variance? Shouldn’t that be upheld because there was a proper referral and, therefore, no jurisdictional defect?
Not so fast, said the Court. The applicant’s problem was that the ZBA relied on the initial variance in granting the amended one: “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the ZBA’s approval of the amended variance is likewise null and void. . . .
One factor that appears to be important is that the planning commission had strongly recommended that the variance be denied. A zoning board can override the commission’s recommendation by a super-majority vote. Here, the ZBA had voted unanimously to override the commission’s recommendation to deny the amended variance. No good, said the Court: “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”
The applicant’s and the ZBA’s problem, it appears, is that they took a short cut to rely on the original variance, at least in part, in deciding to approve the amended variance. In retrospect, they should have made a new determination. The Court agreed and remitted the matter back to the ZBA “for a new determination on petitioner’s application.”
Hindsight is always accurate, and the impetus to avoid re-hashing materials already reviewed is understandable. But the short cut here, especially in light of the opposition from the planning commission and organized concerned citizens, lead to a long road. A good lesson.