Given the complex zoning regulations that govern development of vacant land, in recent years, it has become uniquely challenging to develop smaller tracts of vacant land that do not conform to the current zoning code. Further, the doctrines of merger and single and separate add to the complications. Unless a buyer is absolutely certain that the land for purchase is single and separate from an adjoining parcel and has not merged by common ownership with an adjoining parcel, the results can be less than desirable.
In a recent case, Harn Food LLC v DeChance, the Second Department upheld the Town of Brookhaven’s Board of Zoning Appeals (“BZA”) decision denying a request to construct two houses on what was contended to be two single and separate vacant undersized parcels joined only at the rear property line and each fronting on it’s own adjacent parallel road. Lots configured in this manner are also referred to as through lots.
In upholding the BZA’s decision, the Court rejected petitioner’s argument that the two tax lots were single and separate because they shared only a rear lot line thereby allowing one house to be constructed on each lot. Instead, the Court adopted the BZA’s position that since 1948, the two lots were held in common ownership. The significance of holding or purchasing adjoining vacant lots in common ownership cannot be minimized. Under most zoning codes and as interpreted by many courts, holding vacant lots, that are undersized or non-conforming to the minimum zoning requirements, creates a merger of the parcels and defeats any argument that the lots were held in single and separate status.
In this case, even though the two tax lots at issue were not side by side lots, but instead, they were back to back lots, the Court determined that the common ownership since 1948 rendered the lots merged. Additionally, in weighing the five-factor test set forth in Town Law 267-b(3)(b), the Court relied on a prior denial in 2007 by the BZA of an identical application in the immediate area, together with evidence at the hearing that the proposal set forth did “not conform to the surrounding development pattern, in that only 5 lots (12%) of the 42 improved lots in the area conform to the lot area requested in the application, and only 7 lots (17%) conform to the lot frontage.”
The Court further noted that the buyer was charged with knowledge of the zoning code when the property was purchased. Given that the vacant land is still suitable to construct one dwelling, the Court determined that a feasible alternative existed and that the petitioner was not so aggrieved.
This case is just one more reminder that land use attorneys and real estate attorneys must work together to insure that properties are purchased in uncommon ownership unless otherwise discussed and affirmatively agreed to be held in common ownership. Further, vacant land should never be purchased absent a single and separate search with confirmation from the relevant municipality that the vacant land in question meets the test for single and separate and that no merger with adjoining parcel ever occurred.