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.

In Fichera, et al. v. New York State Dep’t of Envt’l Conserv., et al., decided last month, Petitioners commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to void actions taken and determinations made by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Sterling (“Sterling ZBA”) and to enjoin the advancement of a mine project (“Mine Project”). Below, the Supreme Court, County of Cayuga, denied the petition and granted various motions to dismiss. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that (1) the petition was timely and (2) the Supreme Court erred by dismissing the cause of action based upon a violation of  New York General Municipal Law section 239-m (“Section 239-m”) and by not granting the petition thereupon. The appeals court remitted the matter back to the Sterling ZBA.

As pertinent to the appeal, the Article 78 petition claimed that the Sterling ZBA violated Section 239-m when it granted the Mine Project owners’ original application for an area variance without referring the matter to the appropriate county planning agency or regional planning council. Therefore, petitioners argued, the Sterling ZBA’s action in granting the area variance application was deemed null and void. Petitioners further argued that the Sterling ZBA’s sua sponte decision to grant the Mine Project owners an amended area variance based upon its previous determination on the original application was also null and void.

In opposition to the petition, respondents argued that the challenge to the determination granting the initial area variance was time-barred because petitioners failed to commence their challenge within 30 days of the original determination, as required by New York Town Law section 267-c(1). In addition, respondents contended that the determination granting the subsequent amended area variance was made by the Sterling ZBA after it made the appropriate referrals required by Section 239-m.

The appeals court agreed with the petitioners and emphasized the jurisdictional importance of complying with Section 239-m in declaring the Sterling ZBA’s approvals null and void. In many instances, Section 239-m requires a municipal agency to refer an application to a county or regional planning board for its recommendation prior to the agency taking final action on an application for land use approval. The Sterling ZBA did not refer the initial application for an area variance to the Cayuga County Planning Board before taking final action with respect to that application. Failure to comply with Section 239-m is not a mere procedural irregularity; rather, it is a jurisdictional defect involving the validity of a legislative act. Accordingly, the Sterling ZBA’s failure to refer the initial application to the county planning board renders the approval null and void.

Moreover, the appeals court held that the Sterling ZBA’s determination in granting the subsequent amended area variance was also null and void. “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the [Sterling] ZBA’s approval of the amended area variance is likewise null and void.”

Notably, if the county or regional planning board recommends modifications or disapproves an application, then the referring body cannot act otherwise – except by a vote of majority plus one of all members. Here, the Sterling ZBA unanimously approved the grant of the amended area variance and the respondents argued that the unanimous approval of the amended area variance was sufficient to override any recommendation by Cayuga County Planning Board to disapprove or modify (had the Sterling ZBA referred in the first place). “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the [Sterling] ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

Lastly, the appeals court found that the Article 78 petition was timely, despite having been brought well-after the Sterling ZBA’s determination respecting the initial area variance application. The filing of a jurisdictionally defective document does not commence the statute of limitations. Therefore, the statute of limitations never ran and the petition was timely.

The Appellate Division modified the Supreme Court’s judgment in conformance with its opinion (discussed above) and remitted the matter to the Sterling ZBA for a new determination on the area variance application.

Standing is a threshold issue in challenges to administrative decisions.  Prior blog posts have dealt with standing in cases involving challenges to local land use and zoning decisions.  If standing is not established, the party seeking to overturn the administrative decision will see its proceeding dismissed without any consideration of the merits.  Whether a party has standing is quite fact-sensitive but there are certain overarching principals that should be remembered.  Most notably, a petitioner must show in its pleadings that it suffered a harm that is different from the harm suffered by the general public, that the harm is within the zone of interest sought to be protected by the applicable statute, and that the alleged harm is not speculative.

Late last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, issued two companion decisions that caught our “standing” attention. While the cases involve a challenge to a loophole in the Election Law for limited liability companies, referred to as the LLC Loophole, the matters were resolved on the basis of the lack standing of the petitioners.  In these cases, petitioners raised interesting arguments that they thought would support their standing to challenge an administrative decision, but the Court found them unpersuasive.  The Court’s evaluation of the standing claims may be helpful to those seeking to establish or to defeat standing in the land use and zoning matters.

The Facts     

According to the decisions,  Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524905) and Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524950), petitioners were the Brennan Center For Justice at NYU Law School (the “Brennan Center”), a self-described “not-for-profit, non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on issues of democracy and justice” and six individual petitioners who were current or former legislators or candidates for legislative office. Respondent, the New York State Board of Elections, (“Board of Elections”), was described in the decisions as “a bi-partisan agency governed by four appointed commissioners and vested with the statutory authority to issue instructions, rules and regulations pertaining to campaign financing practices, among other things.”

New York State’s Election Law contains provisions that limit campaign contributions for various types of donors.  When limited liability companies were authorized in New York in 1994, the Legislature did not amend the Election Law to address campaign limits for this type of entity. In 1996, the Board of Elections issued an opinion that treated limited liability companies as individuals for purposes of campaign contribution limits. This allowed limited liability companies to donate larger amounts to campaigns than corporations or partnerships could donate. While there were efforts legislatively to close the LLC Loophole, none were successful.

In April 2015, one of the commissioners of the Board of Elections sought to close the LLC Loophole by making a motion to direct the board’s counsel to rescind the 1996 opinion and provide guidance on limits that should apply to contributions by limited liability companies. The motion failed, whereupon the Petitioners sought review in a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action (“Hybrid Proceeding”). The Supreme Court dismissed the Hybrid Proceeding, which the Appellate Division affirmed in one of the companion decisions.

In April 2016, one of the commissioners made a new motion seeking approval of a draft opinion that would rescind the 1996 opinion and replace it with an opinion that treated limited liability companies in the same manner as partnerships and corporations with respect to campaign contribution limits. This motion also failed. Petitioners commenced another Hybrid Proceeding seeking to invalidate what the Board of Elections did in April 2016 and to replace the 1996 opinion with the 2016 draft opinion. The Supreme Court dismissed the second action, and the Appellate Division affirmed in the second companion decision.

The Appellate Division Decisions

In both cases, the Appellate Division found that the individual petitioners lacked standing. The appellate court found that their claims of harm – that the LLC Loophole “hampers their electoral campaigns by placing them at a competitive disadvantage against opponents who receive large contributions,” “damages their ability to represent their constituents,” harms the voters by “limiting their choices among candidates and hiding the identity of donors,” and “would cause them to suffer disadvantages in future elections” did not confer standing. The court found all these claims to be neither different nor distinct from those of the public at large and were also conjectural.

Similarly, the appellate court found that the Brennan Center lacked standing. The Brennan Center claimed the LLC Loophole “harms its staff contributors and volunteers by limiting their candidate choices and unduly influencing their political representatives.” The appellate court found that this alleged harm was no different than the harm suffered by the general public and did not support standing. The appellate court also rejected the Brennan Center’s claim that it was injured by having to advocate for the closure of the LLC Loophole, which required it to expend resources. The majority also noted that petitioners could not establish standing by claiming that the LLC Loophole caused disparities in campaign contributions, wryly noting that the “[o]ur political system does not mandate equal funding for all candidates.”

The Appellate Division also found that the courts were not the appropriate place to fix the LLC Loophole. Rather, it “resolved around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches.”

Moral Of The Story

As to the applicability of these decisions to Land Use and Zoning – the bottom line is never forget “standing.”  It is a fundamental element that must be established by petitioners and a fundamental defense that should be considered and raised, if applicable, by respondents, in challenges to governmental actions. As noted in the decisions and in the introductory paragraphs, above, petitioners must show “that they have suffered an injury-in-fact and that the injury is within the zone of interest protected by the statute at issue.” Otherwise they will be found to lack standing and will be unable to challenge a determination on the merits.