Earlier this year, the Third Department handed down a surprising upset in the eminent domain arena. See, Matter of Adirondack Historical Association v Village of Lake Placid, 161 A.D.3d 1256 [3d Dept 2018]. The Appellate Division nullified the condemnation because the Village of Lake Placid failed to consider the environmental impact of its use of eminent domain to acquire two vacant parcels of land for the purpose of constructing a parking garage. The Village’s achilles heel was its failure to take the requisite “hard look” at traffic under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
The Eminent Domain Procedure Law (“EDPL”) is New York’s comprehensive law dictating the procedures that must be followed by the state, municipalities and other entities with the power of eminent domain before any condemnation may take place. EDPL §207 deals with a judicial challenge to the proposed condemnation after the completion of the determination. Within 30 days, an aggrieved party must file a petition in the Appellate Division (not the Supreme Court) where the proposed condemnation is to take place. EDPL §207(C) further limits the scope of review to, among other things, whether the condemnor’s determination and findings were made in accordance Article 8 of the Environmental Conservation Law (“ECL” aka “SEQRA”).
Here, the acquisition of land by the Village was considered an Unlisted Action, and a short Environmental Assessment Form (“EAF”) was prepared. As a result, the Village Board was required to review the EAF and the criteria contained in SEQRA to identify the relevant areas of environmental concern. Pursuant to SEQRA, the Village must thoroughly analyze the identified relevant areas of environmental concern to determine if the action may have a significant adverse impact on the environment, and set forth its determination of significance in a written form containing a reasoned elaboration (6 NYCRR 617.7 [b] ). Any adverse change in traffic levels, such as the case with developing a parking garage, is a potential area of environmental concern.
During both the public hearing and the written comment period, concerns regarding increased traffic congestion and other potential traffic impacts associated with the proposed condemnation were repeatedly voiced. Yet, according to the Appellate Division, the record is devoid of any evidence that the Village Board took the requisite hard look at these potential traffic impacts. Indeed, the only proof of the Village Board’s hard look is the conclusory statement in its resolution that “[t]here is no significant environmental impact that could not be mitigated with reasonable measures.”
In light of this, the Court held that given the Village Board’s failure to set forth a reasoned elaboration for its conclusion that the identified traffic concerns were not significant, the SEQRA findings and determinations made in connection with the condemnation of the subject property were vacated. Accordingly, the petitioners blocked the Village from seizing the two parcels of land through eminent domain.
This decision reinforces the importance of municipalities taking the “hard look” under SEQRA when contemplating the powerful tool of eminent domain.