View of Hudson River from Upper Nyack, New YorkPetitioner, Claude Simon (“Petitioner”), owns approximately 2.25 acres of property in the Village of Upper Nyack (the “Village”), which he sought to subdivide into two separate lots.  The first lot would contain the existing dwelling and other existing improvements.  The vacant second lot would be improved with a single-family dwelling.  However, the Village advised Petitioner that he would need to obtain variances for the subdivision.  Accordingly, Petitioner “filed an application for what he believed to be the proper variances.”

During the pendency of Petitioner’s application, the Chairman of the Village Zoning Board of Appeals (the “ZBA”), Thomas Englert (“Englert”), appeared at a Village Planning Board (the “Planning Board”) hearing “in his capacity as a neighbor of Petitioner.”  Englert, who ultimately recused himself from voting on Petitioner’s application, complained that Petitioner’s “proposed subdivision would adversely impact his property.”  The Planning Board, as lead agency under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), required Petitioner to address certain issues of concern to neighbors and the ZBA.  In particular, Petitioner was asked whether the proposed subdivision would adversely impact the views from neighboring properties, specifically, neighbors’ views of the Hudson River.  Ultimately, the Planning Board found that the proposed subdivision would not have significant adverse environmental or aesthetic impacts on the surrounding areas.  Accordingly, the Planning Board issued a negative declaration under SEQRA.

Despite the supporting evidence presented by Petitioner, and the Planning Board’s environmental review and subsequent findings, the ZBA denied Petitioner’s application.  In its determination, the ZBA found that Petitioner’s requested variances “were substantial, and that granting them would produce an undesirable change in the character in the neighborhood.”  However, the ZBA failed to “explain its departure from the Planning Board’s determinations.”

Petitioner brought an Article 78 proceeding seeking to annul the ZBA’s determination denying the variances.  Judicial review of an administrative determination is limited to whether there is a rational basis to support it.  A court undertaking this review shall set aside the determination only if it is arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.  The Supreme Court held that the ZBA’s determination contained only conclusory findings, and was therefore “arbitrary, capricious, and not supported by an objective factual basis in the record.”  The ZBA essentially ignored the Planning Board’s findings that no adverse environmental or aesthetic impact to the neighborhood would result from the variances.  Instead, the ZBA’s denial seemed to be a result of “general community opposition” from two neighboring property owners who claimed, without support, that the proposed subdivision would result in a reduction of their property values.  Even if true, such grounds are insufficient to establish a rational basis to deny Petitioner’s application.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court granted the petition to set aside the ZBA’s determination and ordered the ZBA to grant the variances.  The ZBA appealed the Supreme Court’s decision, but the Second Department ultimately affirmed on the same grounds.

Takeaway:  Administrative agencies, such as local zoning boards, enjoy significant discretion in deciding land use applications affecting the municipalities they serve.  However, that discretion is not unlimited.  All administrative determinations must be supported by a rational basis.  When no rational basis exists, the determination is subject to reversal upon judicial review.