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.

If you have questions regarding SEQRA regulations or procedure, please contact me at pbutler@farrellfritz.com.

The Breakers Motel has been a fixture in Montauk since the 1950’s. Situated at 769 Old Montauk Highway, Montauk New York, the motel has 26 units, a pool and restaurant and is located across the street from the ocean.

In 2015 a building permit was issued by the Town of East Hampton Building Department approving renovations to the existing restaurant inside the motel, including an updated dining area, adding a bar, improving the kitchen facilities and more. The neighboring property owner, a revocable trust, unsuccessfully appealed the Building Department’s determination to issue the April 27, 2015 building permit to the Town of East Hampton Zoning Board of Appeals.

In an Article 78 petition and plenary action entitled Jane H. Concannon Revocable Trust v. The Building Department of the Town of East Hampton, Town of East Hampton Zoning Board of Appels, and Breakers Motel, Inc., Index No. 4297/2016, dated February 5, 2018, the revocable trust (“Petitioner”) appealed the Zoning Board of Appeal’s determination to the Supreme Court.

At the Zoning Board of Appeals, Petitioner argued that because a restaurant had not operated on site since the 1970’s, an application for a special permit under the current Town Code was required before the building permit for renovations could have been issued. The Breakers Motel argued that the restaurant has always been a permitted use and was in place prior to the current Town Code provisions requiring special permits.

Breakers submitted that the restaurant fixtures had never been removed from the site, and a prior Certificate of Occupancy issued in 2005 and Site Plan approval issued in 2010 both referenced and approved the restaurant. All parties conceded that the restaurant was never pre-existing nonconforming and was, in fact, always permitted.

Prior to 1984, the subject property was zoned Multiple Residence District (“MD”), which permitted a restaurant as accessory to a motel. After 1984, the zoning was amended to Resort District (“RS”), which permitted restaurants pursuant to a special permit. The Zoning Board of Appeals denied petitioner’s appeal and declined to consider the merits of petitioner’s appeal, finding that the appeal was untimely pursuant to the 60 day statute of limitations set forth in NYS Town Law §267-a and East Hampton Town Code §255-8-35(A).

Petitioner brought the above referenced proceeding by order to show cause seeking a judgment annulling the Zoning Board of Appeals decision, revoking the building permit and imposing a permanent injunction enjoining further renovations to the restaurant without a special permit.

The Court held that a special permit was not required for the restaurant use, since the use had been in place prior to the 1984 adoption of the RS Zoning District. The Court stated,

“Simply stated, the concept of “use” in the context of zoning regulations is not the equivalent of “in use” or “used” as is made clear in the following definitions in the East Hampton Town Code sections 255-1-14(G) and (H)…” The Court further found that the East Hampton Town definitions of use were consistent with “what is generally accepted in New York zoning law,” stating,

“USE: The specific purpose for which land or a building is designed, arranged, intended, or for which it is or may be occupied or maintained. The term “permitted use,” or its equivalent, shall not be deemed to include any nonconforming use. USE: The purposes for which a structure or premises, or part thereof is occupied, designed, arranged or intended,” citing, Salkin, N.Y. Zoning Law and Prac., 3d Edition §38:05, Sample definition.

The Court relied upon the fact that the restaurant configuration on site was never changed; and the kitchen fixtures and equipment had remained in place since the 1970’s, stating, “the area in question was designed, arranged and intended to be a restaurant; i.e., the use continued even though it was not “used” as a restaurant.”

The Court went on to distinguish the special permit restaurant use from pre-existing nonconforming uses that can be abandoned after time since the special permit use was not rendered illegal after the zone change to RS. Relying on Town Code §255-5-25, which states in relevant part that “special permit uses which either lawfully exist on the effective date of this article…shall, in all respects, constitute lawful and conforming uses under this chapter,” the Court held that the Breakers Motel restaurant use was legal, even under the new RS zoning, and did not require a special permit to be maintained or altered.

The Court denied the request for the permanent injunction and dismissed the proceeding. Petitioner submitted a Notice of Appeal to the Appellate Division, Second Department, while patrons of the Breakers Motel enjoyed the newly renovated restaurant and bar.

Earlier this year, the Third Department handed down a surprising upset in the eminent domain arena.  See, Matter of Adirondack Historical Association v Village of Lake Placid, 161 A.D.3d 1256 [3d Dept 2018]The Appellate Division nullified the condemnation because the Village of Lake Placid failed to consider the environmental impact of its use of eminent domain to acquire two vacant parcels of land for the purpose of constructing a parking garage.  The Village’s achilles heel was its failure to take the requisite “hard look” at traffic under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

The Eminent Domain Procedure Law (“EDPL”) is New York’s comprehensive law dictating the procedures that must be followed by the state, municipalities and other entities with the power of eminent domain before any condemnation may take place.  EDPL §207 deals with a judicial challenge to the proposed condemnation after the completion  of the determination.  Within 30 days, an aggrieved party must file a petition in the Appellate Division (not the Supreme Court) where the proposed condemnation is to take place.  EDPL §207(C) further limits the scope of review to, among other things, whether the condemnor’s determination and findings were made in accordance Article 8 of the Environmental Conservation Law (“ECL” aka “SEQRA”).

Here, the acquisition of land by the Village was considered an Unlisted Action, and a short Environmental Assessment Form (“EAF”) was prepared.  As a result, the Village Board was required to review the EAF and the criteria contained in SEQRA to identify the relevant areas of environmental concern.  Pursuant to SEQRA, the Village must thoroughly analyze the identified relevant areas of environmental concern to determine if the action may have a significant adverse impact on the environment, and set forth its determination of significance in a written form containing a reasoned elaboration (6 NYCRR 617.7 [b] ).  Any adverse change in traffic levels, such as the case with developing a parking garage, is a potential area of environmental concern.

During both the public hearing and the written comment period, concerns regarding increased traffic congestion and other potential traffic impacts associated with the proposed condemnation were repeatedly voiced.  Yet, according to the Appellate Division, the record is devoid of any evidence that the Village Board took the requisite hard look at these potential traffic impacts.  Indeed, the only proof of the Village Board’s hard look is the conclusory statement in its resolution that “[t]here is no significant environmental impact that could not be mitigated with reasonable measures.”

In light of this, the Court held that given the Village Board’s failure to set forth a reasoned elaboration for its conclusion that the identified traffic concerns were not significant, the SEQRA findings and determinations made in connection with the condemnation of the subject property were vacated.  Accordingly, the petitioners blocked the Village from seizing the two parcels of land through eminent domain.

This decision reinforces the importance of municipalities taking the “hard look” under SEQRA when contemplating the powerful tool of eminent domain.

 

 

Given the complex zoning regulations that govern development of vacant land, in recent years, it has become uniquely challenging to develop smaller tracts of vacant land that do not conform to the current zoning code.  Further, the doctrines of merger and single and separate add to the complications.  Unless a buyer is absolutely certain that the land for purchase is single and separate from an adjoining parcel and has not merged by common ownership with an adjoining parcel, the results can be less than desirable.

In a recent case, Harn Food LLC v DeChance, the Second Department upheld the Town of Brookhaven’s Board of Zoning Appeals (“BZA”) decision denying a request to construct two houses on what was contended to be two single and separate vacant undersized parcels joined only at the rear property line and each fronting on it’s own adjacent parallel road.  Lots configured in this manner are also referred to as through lots.

In upholding the BZA’s decision, the Court rejected petitioner’s argument that the two tax lots were single and separate because they shared only a rear lot line thereby allowing one house to be constructed on each lot.  Instead, the Court adopted the BZA’s position that since 1948, the two lots were held in common ownership.  The significance of holding or purchasing adjoining vacant lots in common ownership cannot be minimized.  Under most zoning codes and as interpreted by many courts, holding vacant lots, that are undersized or non-conforming to the minimum zoning requirements, creates a merger of the parcels and defeats any argument that the lots were held in single and separate status.

In this case, even though the two tax lots at issue were not side by side lots, but instead, they were back to back lots, the Court determined that the common ownership since 1948 rendered the lots merged.  Additionally, in weighing the five-factor test set forth in Town Law 267-b(3)(b), the Court relied on a prior denial in 2007 by the BZA of an identical application in the immediate area, together with evidence at the hearing that the proposal set forth did “not conform to the surrounding development pattern, in that only 5 lots (12%) of the 42 improved lots in the area conform to the lot area requested in the application, and only 7 lots (17%) conform to the lot frontage.”

The Court further noted that the buyer was charged with knowledge of the zoning code when the property was purchased.  Given that the vacant land is still suitable to construct one dwelling, the Court determined that a feasible alternative existed and that the petitioner was not so aggrieved.

This case is just one more reminder that land use attorneys and real estate attorneys must work together to insure that properties are purchased in uncommon ownership unless otherwise discussed and affirmatively agreed to be held in common ownership.  Further, vacant land should never be purchased absent a single and separate search with confirmation from the relevant municipality that the vacant land in question meets the test for single and separate and that no merger with adjoining parcel ever occurred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In opposing Crossroad Ventures, LLC’s (“Crossroad Ventures“) endeavor to construct a vacation resort partially within the Town of Shandaken, (“Town“), grassroots preservation organization Catskill Heritage Alliance, Inc. (“Alliance“) commenced two consecutive Article 78 proceedings challenging certain approvals.  The Court addressed multiple appeals from both proceedings in Catskill Heritage Alliance, Inc. v. Crossroads Ventures, LLC, et al., 161 A.D.3d 1413 (3d Dep’t 2018).  In its opinion, the Court reinforced the principle that a board of appeals is the sole interpreter of its ordinance and that interpretations by other boards or bodies may be fatal to municipal approvals and determinations.

In this case, the Town’s zoning ordinance allowed a resort with a special permit and site plan approval from the Town Planning Board (“Planning Board“).  However, the ordinance did not define “Vacation Resort.” In 2000, Crossroads Ventures requested an interpretation and definition of the term to determine what uses are allowed as part of a resort. The Town Zoning Board of Appeals (“Zoning Board“) responded to the request by analogizing a vacation resort to a hotel, motel or lodge development and determined the term included all uses integral to the hotel, motel or lodge development and clearly accessory to it, as well as other uses allowed in the area, either as of right or by permission. After receiving the interpretation, Crossroads Ventures undertook a prolonged environmental review and developed a plan for the resort: two hotels, a conference center, community centers and additional lodging scattered among several duplexes and multiple unit buildings.

In 2013, towards the end of its environmental review, Crossroads Ventures made an application to the Planning Board for a special permit and site plan approval. The Planning Board issued the special permit and conditionally approved the site plan. The Alliance commenced its first Article 78 proceeding challenging these determinations. The Supreme Court, Ulster County, issued a decision in October 2016 denying Crossroad Venture’s motion to dismiss and granting the Alliance’s petition, in part. The Court found that, although the Planning Board properly determined that non-habitational structures fell within the clear definition of permissible accessory uses to the resort, it improperly resolved an ambiguity in the ordinance as to whether detached duplexes and multiple unit buildings were permitted uses in the area. Accordingly, the Court annulled the determinations and remitted the matter to the Zoning Board to address the propriety of residential structures. The parties appealed the October 2016 decision.

On remittal, the Zoning Board interpreted the ordinance and clarified that detached residential units were permitted “lodges.” Thereafter, the Planning Board, again, granted Crossroads Ventures’ application, issued a special permit and conditionally approved the site plan. The Alliance commenced its second Article 78 proceeding challenging both the Zoning Board’s interpretation and the latest Planning Board approvals. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition by decision dated July 2017 and the Alliance appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department, decided both appeals. With respect to the October 2016 decision, the appellate Court affirmed both the denial of the motion to dismiss and the granting of the petition, in part. The Court noted that zoning boards of appeals are the bodies with the authority to interpret ordinances – not planning boards. To the extent any ambiguities exist in the pertinent ordinance, a planning board must request an interpretation thereof from its board of appeals. In 2000, the Zoning Board interpreted the “Vacation Resort” term to include conference centers and community centers as integral, accessory uses, but it did not opine on detached duplexes and multiple-unit buildings. This was problematic because the latter structures are habitations and could be viewed either as permitted lodges or as new multifamily dwellings prohibited under the ordinance affecting the project area. The Planning Board should have requested another interpretation from the Zoning Board, rather than resolving the ambiguity itself. Therefore, the appeals Court affirmed the lower Court’s October 2016 decision to annul the Planning Board’s approvals for the resort and to remit the issue to the Zoning Board.

Next, the appeals Court reviewed the July 2017 decision. This later decision addressed both the Zoning Board’s interpretation of the duplexes and multiple-unit buildings and the Planning Board’s subsequent (second set of) approvals. The appeals Court found the Zoning Board’s interpretation deserved deference because it was not a purely legal interpretation – it was rendered upon the facts of Crossroads Ventures’ proposal. The Town ordinance defined “multiple dwellings” as structures within three or more dwelling units, but stated that rooms in a boardinghouse, dormitory, motel, inn or other similar building do not constitute dwelling units. Although the Town ordinance did not define the term “lodge,” the Zoning Board noted that a lodge is commonly defined as a transient residence, such as an inn or similar building having rooms that are excluded from the ordinance’s definition of dwelling unit. Ultimately, the permanence of residency was determinative.

The Zoning Board concluded that a lodge includes structures containing one or more units of lodging and sleeping accommodations for transient occupancy in connection with the special permitted use of a hotel, lodge development or vacation resort held under common ownership – so long as the users had primary residence elsewhere. And, the Zoning Board determined that the proposed structures at the resort were intended for transient occupancy, as rentals or timeshares; therefore, these were permitted lodges, as opposed to prohibited new multifamily dwellings. The Court found this interpretation to be rational. The Court also found that the Planning Board, relying upon the Zoning Board’s 2000 and 2017 valid interpretations, rationally determined to issue the special permit and conditional site plan approval for the resort. Therefore, the Court affirmed the July 2017 decision.

An application was made for a site plan to the Planning Board of the City of Poughkeepsie for a 24 two-bedroom unit condominium complex in four buildings on a 3.4 acre parcel adjacent to an historic district.   The site had existing mature trees on the perimeter of the property, some of which were proposed to be cut down and replaced with new trees.   On April 19, 2011, the City of Poughkeepsie Planning Board issued a negative declaration pursuant to the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”). The Historic Southside Neighborhood Association appealed the determination in an Article 78 Proceeding to the Dutchess County Supreme Court seeking an order annulling the negative declaration and directing the Planning Board to issue a positive declaration and proceed with an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). See Jeanette Peterson as President of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Assn. v. Planning Board of the City of Poughkeepsie et al., Index No. 3511/2011, September 2, 2015.

The Supreme Court stated the standard in reviewing the negative declaration issued by the Planning Board was limited to “whether the agency identified the relevant areas of environmental concerns took a hard look at them, and made a reasonable elaboration of the grounds for its determination.” The Supreme Court found that the Planning Board took the requisite “hard look” at the potential impacts of the proposed project on the bordering historic district during a 20 month review period. The Court found that the Planning Board’s reliance on the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (“OPRHP”) which issued three letters concluding that it did not perceive any substantial impact to the neighboring historic district was reasonable. The Supreme Court upheld the negative declaration and dismissed the proceeding. The Historic Southside Neighborhood Association appealed the matter to the Appellate Division.

In its decision dated July 5, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in the Matter of Jeannette Peterson, etc., v. Planning Board of the City of Poughkeepsie, et al., 2018 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05049, reversed the Supreme Courts determination. Regarding the impact to the historic district the Appellate Division found the Planning Board’s reliance on the OPRHP insufficient stating that the Planning Board “merely relied upon a letter from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreations and Historic Preservation, which stated only that the proposed action would not have an adverse impact on the historic district. Such a conclusory statement fails to fulfill the reasoned elaboration requirement of SEQRA.”

Additionally, the Court reviewed the Planning Board’s determination regarding the potential impacts to vegetation or fauna cited in the negative declaration which stated that the proposed action would not result in the “removal or destruction of large quantities of vegetation or fauna.” However, the Environmental Assessment Form relied upon by the Planning Board noted the reduction of the 3.4 acre parcel’s forestation from 2.75 acres to 0.3 acres. The Court stated, “[i]n the context of this project, the level of deforestation is significant.”

Therefore, the Appellate Division found that the proposed action may have significant adverse environmental impacts upon one or more areas of environmental concern and determined that the Planning Board’s negative declaration was arbitrary and capricious. The matter was remitted to the Planning Board for the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.

Split zoned parcels can be a headache for property owners and practitioners.  In general, a split zoned parcel is a piece of land located in two or more zoning districts and divided by a zoning district boundary line.  Often these split zoned parcels are found at interfaces between commercial and residential uses or other areas of transition in the municipality.

Throughout New York, most zoning codes provide various ways to handle such conditions, often allowing applicants to extend one district or its permitted uses over a portion of the other district without needing to apply for a change  of zone.  Problems for applicants and practitioners arise when the proposed use on the property is prohibited on the other side of the  zoning boundary line.  Under those circumstances, applicants may face hostile boards or opponents claiming that because such use is prohibited in one of the districts, it requires a use variance.  As a use variance can often be an insurmountable hurdle, practitioners must carefully craft a record to support the proposed use for a split zoned parcel.

Recently, in  the City of Saratoga Springs, a neighboring restaurant owner sued to block a proposed pet kennel, claiming it required a use variance because kennels were prohibited in one of the two zones that split the property.  In other words, the restaurant owner was claiming that the prohibited tail was wagging the permitted dog.  Unfortunately, the restaurant owner was barking up the wrong tree, and in June of 2018, the Appellate Division affirmed the City of Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) determination that a use variance was not required for the proposed kennel project and granted the necessary area variances See, Wen Mei Lu v. City of Saratoga Springs—N.Y.S.33D —(3d Dept 2018).

In Wen Mei Lu, Pet Lodges Inc. submitted an application to the City’s Building Inspector in 2016, seeking approval of the proposed construction of a pet boarding facility.  The 6,000-square-foot kennel facility was planned for a 1.6 acre parcel of land that was split zoned Rural Residence and Tourist Related Business (TRB).  The smaller rear portion of the property, zoned Rural Residential, allows for animal kennels, but the TRB zone that comprises the larger portion of the property fronting on State Route 9, prohibits the use.

The application was denied by the City’s Building Department on the ground that the project required area variances for certain setback issues.  Pet Lodges Inc. then applied to the ZBA for area variance relief.  At the hearing, the restaurant owner’s attorney submitted letters and testimony claiming, among other things, that the kennel required a use variance, because it was a prohibited use in the TRB zone, and was fundamentally inconsistent with the permitted uses such as service establishments, eating and drinking establishments and bed and breakfasts.

The Appellate Division, in finding that the ZBA rationally determined a use variance was not required, noted that although kennels are prohibited in the TRB zone, under the City’s zoning ordinance, where a zoning district boundary line divides a lot or land, the district requirements on either side of the boundary may be construed, at the property owner’s option, as extending 100 feet into the remaining portions of the property.  Here, the applicant chose to extend the Rural Residential district where kennels are permitted into the TRB commercial zone where kennels are prohibited.

Finding that such an extension of a zoning boundary did not require a use variance, the Court went on to hold that the ZBA’s determination to grant the necessary area variances had a rational basis in the record.  The Court also determined that while a small portion of the facility’s parking area and driveway will lie within the TRB district, the ZBA rationally found that such accessory uses were not prohibited under the zoning ordinance.   The Court noted that ZBAs are “invested with the power to vary zoning regulations in specific cases in order to avoid unnecessary hardship or practical difficulties arising from a literal application of the zoning law.”

Given the potential complexities associated with split zoned properties, this decision provides some clarity as to what the courts and zoning boards are considering when faced with split zoned lots.

 

 

 

General Municipal Law §239-m requires that before taking action on a land use application, a municipal agency like a Zoning Board of Appeals or Planning Board must refer the application to a county or regional planning commission for its recommendation. This referral and receipt of comments and recommendations from the planning commission is no longer just a nicety. It is jurisdictional.

Any variance or site plan or other land use approval is null and void if the approving agency has not followed this referral procedure. e.g., Ernalex Constr. Realty Corp v. City of Glen Cove, 681 N.Y.S. 2d 296 [2d Dept.1998]; 24 Franklin Ave. R.E. Corp. v. Heaship, 30 N.Y.S.3d 695 [2d Dept. 2016].

Moreover, the statute of limitations does not even begin to run to challenge an agency action (the grant of a variance, for example) if the variance is jurisdictionally defective because the referral procedure was not followed. e.g., Hampshire Mgt. Co., No. 20, LLC v. Feiner, 860 N.Y.S.3d 714 [2d Dept. 2008].

Old news.

So, what happens if an agency grants a variance without following the referral procedure and then, perhaps realizing its mistake, grants an amended variance where it does make the proper referral to the planning commission?

In Fichera v. NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, 74 N.Y.S.3d 422 [4th Dept. 2018], the Fourth Department held that the original and the amended variances were both null and void. The applicant had received variances from the Town’s ZBA, and permits from the DEC needed to conduct mining. The ZBA and the applicant argued that the time to challenge the original variance had run and that the amended variance was perfectly fine because the referral process had been diligently followed.

The Appellate Division disagreed. First, the Court applied the “old news” rules above to find that the original variance was jurisdictionally defective because of the failure to follow the referral process. Then, they also held that the same jurisdictional defect tolled the statute of limitations so that the challenge to the original variance was timely. Therefore, the original variance was vacated as jurisdictionally defective.
What about the amended variance? Shouldn’t that be upheld because there was a proper referral and, therefore, no jurisdictional defect?

Not so fast, said the Court. The applicant’s problem was that the ZBA relied on the initial variance in granting the amended one: “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the ZBA’s approval of the amended variance is likewise null and void. . . .

One factor that appears to be important is that the planning commission had strongly recommended that the variance be denied. A zoning board can override the commission’s recommendation by a super-majority vote. Here, the ZBA had voted unanimously to override the commission’s recommendation to deny the amended variance. No good, said the Court: “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

The applicant’s and the ZBA’s problem, it appears, is that they took a short cut to rely on the original variance, at least in part, in deciding to approve the amended variance. In retrospect, they should have made a new determination. The Court agreed and remitted the matter back to the ZBA “for a new determination on petitioner’s application.”

Hindsight is always accurate, and the impetus to avoid re-hashing materials already reviewed is understandable. But the short cut here, especially in light of the opposition from the planning commission and organized concerned citizens, lead to a long road. A good lesson.

Recently Farrell Fritz, P.C. represented a family held limited liability company in connection with an application to a East End zoning board of appeals to maintain an eight (8) foot fence and six (6) foot driveway gates around its property in Sagaponack.   See, 79 Parsonage LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Incorporated Village of Sagaponack.  Both the fence and a portion of the applicant’s gates violated the Village of Sagaponack’s six (6) foot height limitation.

On behalf of the applicant, Farrell Fritz argued that a fence was necessary to exclude a family of deer that had taken up residence on the property.  Exclusion of the deer was necessary as one member of the household had suffered through two bouts of Lyme’s Disease. In addition, the fence was constructed among mature vegetation and was not visible from the street.

Despite those and additional arguments offered at the hearing, the Sagaponack Zoning Board denied the application.

On behalf of the property owner, Farrell Fritz commenced an Article 78 proceeding in the New York State Supreme Court, Suffolk County, appealing the Zoning Board’s Decision.

On December 15, 2017, Justice Gerard W. Asher, J.S.C. overturned the Zoning Board’s denial and directed the Board to issue the requested variances finding that the applicant overcame the presumption afforded to Zoning Boards in deciding zoning cases. Through the Article 78, Farrell Fritz demonstrated that no evidence existed to support the Zoning Board’s decision; and its findings were conclusory, and therefore irrational and arbitrary and capricious. Judge Asher agreed with the application that the fence was hidden, and a grant would benefit the applicant because one of the two members already suffered from Lyme’s Disease. After making the findings, Judge Asher vacated and annulled the ZBA determination.

What Judge Asher makes clear in his Decision, and should be considered by all practitioners, is that zoning boards must balance all of the relevant considerations in a rational way.

Last month, the Appellate Division, Second Department, issued four decisions[1] in a series of hybrid proceedings challenging local laws in the Town of Riverhead (“Riverhead”). Plaintiff/Petitioner Calverton Manor, LLC (“Calverton Manor”), in connection with a site plan application, sought to annul several resolutions adopted by Defendant/Respondent Riverhead Town Board (“Town Board”). These resolutions: (1) established a new comprehensive plan; (2) implemented a new agricultural protection zoning district (“Agricultural District”); (3) implemented a new rural corridor district (“Rural District”); and (4) enacted a new transfer of development rights law (“TDR Law”). Each of the challenges was based upon the Town Board’s failure to comply with N.Y. General Municipal Law Section 239-m (“Section 239-m”), among other things. In addition, Calverton Manor argued that the “special facts exception” required Riverhead to apply the preceding zoning district laws to its application, rather than the new Agricultural District and Rural District laws.

In these cases, the Court held that some circumstances allow revisions to be made to proposed laws or actions referred to the county planning agency pursuant to Section 239-m even after the referral is made. As the Court analyzed Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenges to the various Town Board resolutions, its holdings illustrate the distinction between valid post-referral modifications and invalid modifications which violate Section 239-m and render the entire act void. Additionally, the Court analyzed the special facts exception in light of Riverhead’s treatment of Calverton Manor’s application.

Calverton Manor’s Site Plan Application versus a New Comprehensive Plan

Calverton Manor owns an undeveloped parcel of land (“Property”) in Riverhead and submitted a site plan application in 2001 to construct numerous commercial and residential buildings thereon (“Application”). For approximately two years, Calverton Manor worked with Riverhead on its Application to satisfy the applicable zoning laws in effect at the time. Riverhead, however, had been developing a new comprehensive plan since 1997. The new comprehensive plan sought to protect open space and farmland, while concentrating development into certain specified areas. Riverhead’s new comprehensive plan also proposed eliminating certain permitted uses on the Property that were crucial to the Application.

Calverton Manor submitted the last revised Application in September 2003. The Town Board adopted the new comprehensive plan on November 3, 2003. The new comprehensive plan derailed the Application and development of the Property. Calverton Manor brought its challenges in Suffolk County Supreme Court. Calverton Manor was largely unsuccessful and appealed; the Town Board cross-appealed concerning the special facts exemption.

Amendments Subsequent to a Section 239-m Referral: Embraced in the Original

With respect to Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenge to the Town Board’s resolutions enacting the comprehensive plan, the Agricultural District and the Rural District, the trial court denied the petition, dismissed the proceeding and declared theses local laws legal and valid.[2] Section 239-m, in many instances, requires a municipality to submit to the county planning agency a “full statement” of the proposed action. In pertinent part, the trial court found that the Town Board made the appropriate Section 239-m referrals. Calverton Manor appealed and the Second Department affirmed. The Court held that despite changes made to the comprehensive plan, Agricultural District and Rural District after the Town Board referred these local laws to the Suffolk County Planning Commission (“Commission”), the revisions were “embraced within the original referral” such that the Town Board did not fail to refer a full statement of its proposed action.

Calverton Manor also presented a Section 239-m challenge to Riverhead’s new TDR Law. Transfer development rights allow landowners whose development rights have been adversely affected or limited in one place to transfer these rights to another place and build in excess of certain limitations in that other, buildable place. The parcel from which rights are transferred is the “sending parcel” and the parcel to which rights are transferred is the “receiving parcel.” Riverhead’s new TDR Law designated the Property as a “sending parcel” so that development rights could only be transferred away from it, as opposed to towards it.

With respect to this challenge, the trial court also denied Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenge to the TDR Law based upon the same rationale. The Second Department, however, reversed the trial court, granted the motion for summary judgment and declared the TDR Law void for failure to comply with Section 239-m. The Town Board’s submission of the TDR Law to the Commission was effectively rejected because it was missing the complete text of the law. The Commission, upon receipt of the proposed law, advised the Town Board by letter that it would not review the TDR Law until it received a complete revised text of the amendment. And, nothing in the record contradicted the Commission’s position that it did not receive a complete text of the law. Therefore, the Court found that the Town Board failed to refer a “full statement” of the proposed TDR Law to the Commission prior to enacting the same in violation of Section 239-m.

The Town Board sought the same “embraced within the original” protection the Court applied to the other local laws. Specifically, the Town Board argued its referral of prior drafts of the TDR Law sufficed Section 239-m and obviated the need for the subsequent referral. The appeals court disagreed. A new referral is not required only if “the particulars of the [changes] were embraced within the original referral.” Unlike the changes made to the comprehensive plan, Agricultural District and Rural District, subsequent to their referrals, the amendments to the TDR Law were not embraced within the referred version.

The TDR Law ultimately passed by the Town Board, among other things, mapped the sending and receiving districts and specified the degree to which density limitations could be exceeded. The prior versions of the TDR Law reserved these details for future consideration. Highlighting the significance of the changes made to the TDR Law post-referral, the Town Board’s own resolution declared that the final TDR Law contained “significant modifications” from the prior versions. In addition, the Town Board even prepared a supplemental generic environmental impact statement over the course of several months to evaluate the changes in the final TDR Law. Accordingly, the Court held that the Town Board failed to comply with Section 239-m, the adoption of the resolution enacting the TDR Law was of no effect and the TDR Law is void and unenforceable.

Special Facts Exception Permits “Grandfathering” Site Plan Applications

In addition to its Section 239-m, Calverton Manor argued “special facts” required that the zoning district laws preceding the Agricultural District and Rural District apply to its Application. Ordinarily, courts apply the current zoning laws in effect when they render decisions. Under the special facts exception, however, courts may apply the law in effect at the time the application was made. This exception applies where the landowner “establishes entitlement as a matter of right to the underlying land use application [and] extensive delay indicative of bad faith….unjustifiable actions by municipal officials…or abuse of administrative procedures.”

The Town Board sought to dismiss this claim, but the trial court held triable issues of fact existed sufficient to permit the claim to proceed. The Town Board cross-appealed and the Second Department denied its appeal.[3] The Court found that triable issues of fact exist as to whether special facts warranted the application of the prior zoning laws to Calverton Manor’s Application.

The record contained inconsistencies as to whether Calverton Manor’s last revised Application was “complete” in September 2003. On the one hand, evidence in the record showed that Calverton Manor needed to make further revisions before the Application could be deemed completed under Riverhead’s rules. In this scenario, Calverton Manor is not entitled to the exception. On the other hand, evidence also showed that the Town Board determined the Application was “completed” upon submission in September 2003. This latter circumstance indicates the Town Board may have delayed processing the Application in bad faith until the new laws went into effect. Because triable issues of fact exist, summary judgment on this claim was inappropriate.

—ENDNOTES—

[1] Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 829 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 833 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 838 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 842 (2d Dept 2018).

[2] Although these are hybrid proceedings, for the purposes of simplicity, the petition/complaint will be referred to as the petition and the proceeding/action will be referred to as the proceeding.

[3] The Town Board cross-appealed “from so much of the order as did not search the record and award them summary judgment and, in effect, make a declaration in their favor” on Calverton Manor’s special facts exception claim. The Second Department “dismissed” the cross appeal based upon the premise that the Town Board was not entitled to make such an appeal because it was technically not aggrieved. The Court noted that a party is not aggrieved by an order which does not grant relief that the party did not request. Here, apparently, the Town Board did not ask the trial court to award summary judgment on the special exceptions claim. Therefore, it cannot be aggrieved by this aspect of the order and is not entitled to appeal it. Despite having “dismissed” the cross-appeal, the Second Department heard, analyzed and denied the Town Board’s arguments seeking summary judgment on the special facts exception.