A recent Second Department decision, Matter of Village of Kiryas Joel v County of Orange, et al., addresses the intriguing justiciability doctrine of ripeness, as applied to judicial review of municipal administrative action.

In 2007, Orange County (the “County”) acquired property known as Camp LaGuardia from the New York City Economic Development Corporation.  Originally, the County’s plan was to designate the property for both residential and commercial use.  This would have required zoning changes from the Town of Chester and the neighboring Town of Blooming Grove.  However, the County eventually abandoned its plan for mixed-use development of the Camp LaGuardia property, instead deciding to develop an industrial park.

In 2016, the Town of Chester sought to amend its zoning code to rezone portions of the Camp LaGuardia property to industrial use, and it submitted a proposal to that effect to the Orange County Department of Planning.  At a public hearing on the proposal, the Petitioner, Village of Kiryas Joel (“Petitioner”), raised concerns about the detrimental impacts the rezoning could potentially have on affordable housing and the environment in the area.  Petitioner alleged that the Town’s review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) was insufficient for many reasons.  In particular, Petitioner alleged that the Town’s environmental review was improperly segmented, meaning that the it failed to consider the impacts of the project as whole, throughout the entirety of property to be developed.  To accomplish this, according to Petitioner, would require “a coordinated environmental review by all municipalities involved,” rather than just the Town of Chester.

Despite Petitioner’s concerns, the Town of Chester voted to adopt the proposed rezoning law, permitting many uses not previously allowed, and now prohibiting all residential uses.  Petitioner brought an Article 78 action seeking, inter alia, annulment of the new zoning law, against not only the Town of Chester, but all involved municipalities, as well as their respective agencies and legislative bodies.  The additional respondents named were the County of Orange, the Orange County Department of Planning, the Orange County Legislature, the Orange County Sewer District No. 1 (collectively, the “County Respondents”); the Town of Chester Planning Board; the Town of Blooming Grove; and the Village of Chester.

Petitioner alleged various violations under SEQRA, as well as violations of state law and local town code provisions.  All respondents separately moved to dismiss Petitioner’s action on the grounds that it was not ripe for the court’s review.  The lower court granted the motions of all respondents, holding that Petitioner’s concerns about the impacts on the property were “wholly speculative” at the current stage.

Petitioner appealed that decision to the Second Department, which issued an interesting ruling.  The Second Department affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the action as against the County Respondents, the Town of Chester Planning Board, the Town of Blooming Grove, and the Village of Chester, holding that “those respondents have not taken any action that may be reviewed.”  However, it reversed as to the Town of Chester.

The doctrine of ripeness is “‘designed “to prevent the courts . . . from entangling themselves in abstract disagreements over administrative policies, and also to protect the agencies from judicial interference until an administrative decision has been formalized and its effects felt in a concrete way by the parties”‘ (National Park Hospitality Assn. v Department of Interior, 538 US 803, 807-808, quoting Abbott Laboratories v Gardner, 387 US 136, 148-149).”  An administrative decision that is not final is not ripe for review.  Such a decision becomes final only when the agency has reach a “definitive position” on the issue to be decided and the aggrieved party has exhausted its administrative remedies (see Matter of Best Payphones, Inc. v Department of Info. Tech & Telecom. of City of N.Y., 5 NY3d 30, 34).

Applying that rule here, the Second Department found that because Town of Chester had completed the SEQRA process and formally enacted the proposed zoning law, the action was “complete and final” and could “not be ameliorated by any further administrative action.”  Thus, Petitioner’s challenge was ripe for the court’s review, but only as to the Town of Chester.

Takeaway:  When seeking judicial review of administrative decisions, litigators should keep this case in mind and remember that such review is appropriate only against those who have taken definitive and final action.