The generally accepted practice in towns and villages throughout New York is that public and private schools need not comply with the zoning rules applicable to other property owners.  However, the Appellate Division, Third Department, recently issued a decision, in Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District v Town of Bethlehem, that clarified that zoning laws do apply to schools, except in very specific circumstances.

The case arose when the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District asked the Town of Bethlehem whether any local law prohibited it from replacing an existing traditional sign at one of its elementary schools with an electronic message board sign. Although the Town responded that electronic signs were expressly prohibited under its zoning laws, the District nevertheless applied for a permit to install the sign.  After the sign permit was denied, the District proceeded to install the sign claiming that, as a public school, it was not subject to the Town’s zoning requirements.

The District also appealed the Town’s sign permit denial by seeking a variance from the Town’s zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”). After the ZBA denied the District’s application for a variance, the District filed a hybrid CPLR Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action seeking, among other things, a declaration that it was immune from the Town’s zoning law.

The Albany County Supreme Court rejected the District’s immunity argument, dismissed the petition, and directed that the District remove the electronic sign. The District appealed.

The Third Department affirmed, concluding that although schools enjoyed some immunity from zoning regulations, that immunity was “not so broad and absolute” as the District contended.  The Court explained that, the legislature has charged the New York State Education Department and local boards of education with the management and control of educational affairs and public schools, and some courts have interpreted this mandate as the State reserving unto itself the control over and the authority to regulate all school matters. The Court went on to say, however, that some of these courts had misinterpreted prior decisions to extend a full exemption from zoning ordinances where it was not warranted.”

According to the Court in Bethlehem, reliance on cases granting schools immunity from all zoning regulations was misplaced, given the Court of Appeals decision in Cornell University v Bagnardi. In Bagnardi, the Court noted that, historically, schools have enjoyed “special treatment with respect to residential zoning ordinances” because “schools, public, parochial and private, by their very nature, singularly serve the public’s welfare and morals.  The Court, however, also noted that there were “many instances in which a particular educational or religious use may actually detract from the public’s health, safety, welfare or morals [and, i]n those instances, the institution may be properly denied.”  To clarify its prior rulings, the Court in Bagnardi held that the presumed beneficial effects of schools and churches “may be rebutted with evidence of a significant impact on traffic congestion, property values, municipal services and the like,” because the “inherent beneficial effects … must be weighed against their potential for harming the community.”

The Third Department ultimately concluded that the District was not immune from and, therefore, was subject to the Town’s zoning ordinances.  Next, it addressed whether the ZBA had properly denied the District’s application for a variance. With respect to the BZA determination, the Court found that the ZBA had provided “rational reasons” for its determination, including a concern for traffic safety due to the sign’s brightness and potential to be more distracting and hazardous to passing motorists than an ordinary sign.

The Bethlehem decision makes clear that despite the special treatment afforded schools by the law, they are not entitled to a full exemption from zoning rules, and local governments are not powerless to apply their zoning laws to educational institutions.