A recent decision from the Nassau County Supreme Court, Healy v. Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals, overturned a municipal determination that granted special zoning exceptions and variances to a Greek Orthodox Church located in Merrick, New York. The church wanted to construct a two-story cultural center and related parking next to the church. It applied to the Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals (“Board of Appeals”) for the special exceptions and variances.
Residents in the area opposed the application, claiming the construction would adversely affect the environment. After the Board of Appeals granted the application, the residents sued, claiming that: (1) the hearing was defective; (2) the negative declaration issued under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and affected by an error of law; (3) the Board of Appeals gave excessive deference to the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act; and (4) one member of the Board of Appeals had a conflict of interest.
The Court rejected all of the asserted grounds for reversal except the SEQRA review. The Court found no defect in the Board of Appeals hearing. It noted that a zoning board of appeals can conduct informal hearings, is not required to use the rules of evidence at such hearings, and is not required to swear in witnesses or cross-examine them. The hearing that was conducted lasted 12 hours, included 16 witnesses in support of the church’s application and 24 witnesses in opposition, and expert testimony.
As to the supposed conflict of interest, one member of the Board of Appeals was the sister-in-law of an attorney who used to represent the church and the managing partner of that lawyer’s law firm was currently the campaign manager for the board member’s estranged husband. The Court rejected that ground, noting that the residents failed to demonstrate that the board member had any pecuniary or material interest in the outcome of the application and she did not cast the deciding vote as the decision was unanimous.
Unfortunately for the church and the Board of Appeals, the Court found the SEQRA review to be woefully inadequate. The Board of Appeals completed a Short Environmental Assessment Form, which identified two concerns – the proposed application would result in a change in the use and intensity of the land and would change the character or quality of the existing neighborhood. The Board of Appeals declared the application an unlisted action under SEQRA. The Board of Appeals adopted a one paragraph resolution declaring that the cultural center would not have a significant effect on the environment. The resolution did not contain any rationale, explanation or articulation of the basis for the SEQRA determination. The Court found this did not meet SEQRA’s “hard look” or “reasoned elaboration” requirements. The Court also ruled that the zoning determination cannot be used as the rationale for the SEQRA determination. As a result, the Court vacated the Board of Appeals decision.