In SEQRA parlance, a “Negative Declaration of Environmental Significance”, or “Neg. Dec.”, is a lead agency’s finding that the proposed Type I or Unlisted Action under review will not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts. An applicant whose project receives a Neg. Dec. is spared the (often) considerable time and expense of preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) and the gauntlet of procedural steps that follow a positive declaration. However, a Neg. Dec. must be accompanied by a “reasoned elaboration” of the bases for the determination along with references to supporting documentation in the record. A Neg. Dec. which lacks a reasoned elaboration is invalid on its face, see, e.g., New York City Coal. to End Lead Poisoning, Inc. v. Vallone, 100 N.Y.2d 337 (2003), and reviewing courts will not conduct an independent search of the record to discern the lead agency’s rationale and salvage the determination. See, e.g., Matter of Healy, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 28261, — N.Y.S.3d —- (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2018) (wherein the court commended the lead agency on a thorough SEQRA review, but was constrained nonetheless to set aside the agency’s negative declaration because it did not contain a written reasoned elaboration).
In Vill. of Ballston Spa v. City of Saratoga Springs, 163 A.D.3d 1220, — N.Y.S.3d —- (Decided July 12, 2018), the Third Department struck a careful balance between SEQRA’s rigid “strict compliance” standard and consideration for practical mistakes that sometimes occur when a lead agency moves through the SEQRA process on a particular application. In 2017, the City of Saratoga Springs sought to condemn a stretch of land adjacent to a heavily-trafficked road for the creation of a new pedestrian/bicycle trail. The City Council, as lead agency, classified the project as a Type I Action and completed parts 1 and 2 of a full Environmental Assessment Form (EAF).
Eventually, the City Council adopted a resolution finding that the project would not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts and issued a negative declaration. It was then brought to the Council’s attention that its resolution did not include information explaining the basis for the determination. Two months later, the Council adopted a supplemental resolution reaffirming its Neg. Dec. for the project. This time, the resolution included specific information addressing each potential environmental impact identified in part 2 of the EAF and the Council’s rationale for why those issues would not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts. Opponents of the project challenged the Neg. Dec. contending that the supplemental resolution was not a permitted action under SEQRA.
On Appeal, the Appellate Division found that the City complied with SEQRA’s procedural requirements. In doing so, the Court expressly rejected the petitioners’ argument that the supplemental resolution would have been proper only under one of the enumerated situations set forth in 6 NYCRR 617.7(e) and (f) of the SEQRA regulations, which govern the amendment and rescission of negative declarations. The Court held that while 6 NYCRR 617.7(e) and (f) dictate a lead agency’s response to certain developments following the adoption of a Neg. Dec., those provisions are not exhaustive and do not preclude a lead agency from correcting a mistake in process under other circumstances.
Of particular relevance for the Court were the facts that the Council had conducted an earnest review of the relevant environmental issues; held another public meeting to discuss the contents of the supplemental resolution, and took additional procedural steps before reaffirming its negative declaration for the project. The supplemental resolution was also adopted before the Council took final action to approve the project. The Court observed that, as a practical matter, nullification of the Neg. Dec. would only have resulted in a redundant SEQRA process that would have undoubtedly reached the same conclusion. Thus, the Court ruled that the supplemental resolution was a proper means to correct the omission of the reasoned elaboration from the original Neg. Dec.
The Third Department’s decision in Ballston Spa lends itself to the proposition that a lead agency can, at times, correct the fatal defect of omitting a reasoned elaboration from a negative declaration. This is not to say, however, that any writing presented after the adoption of a Neg. Dec. will be sufficient. In Matter of Dawley v. Whitetail 414, LLC, 130 A.D.3d 1570, 14 N.Y.S.3d 854 (4th Dept. 2015) (cited in contrast in Ballston Spa), the Fourth Department ruled that a written attachment presented after the adoption of a negative declaration could not serve as a reasoned elaboration where the respondent town board, serving as the lead agency, never reviewed the attachment and never voted to have it included as a supplement to its negative declaration. See, also, Rochester Eastside Residents for Appropriate Dev., Inc. v. City of Rochester, 150 A.D.3d 1678, 54 N.Y.S.3d 484 (4th Dept. 2017) (also cited in Ballston Spa) holding that a document containing the purported reasoning for the lead agency’s determination, prepared subsequent to the issuance of the negative, did not fulfill the statutory mandate. It is therefore uncertain how another court might rule if presented with a similar set of facts. Careful and thorough drafting continues to be the best hope of insulating a negative declaration from legal challenge.
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