Due to the proliferation of advanced mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, wireless service providers anticipate a significant increase in data traffic over their networks in the next few years.  As a result, mobile operators have been compelled to find new ways to increase their network capacity, provide better coverage and reduce network congestion. One solution has been to create a new small cell network consisting of a series of small low-powered antennas – sometimes called nodes – that are typically attached to existing utility poles or streetlights located in the public right of way. In many municipalities, however, service providers and their contractors are facing strong opposition from elected officials and residents who have expressed concerns about the impacts from this new equipment.

One of the more recent battles is currently taking place in the Westchester County community of Rye, where an application by Crown Castle NG East LLC (“Crown Castle”) has already been the subject of two lawsuits, one which resulted in a ruling that delays associated with environmental review pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) do not violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“TCA”).

The City of Rye (“City”) entered into a right of way use agreement (“RUA”) with NextG Networks of NY, Inc. (“NextG”) on February 17, 2011. Pursuant to the RUA, NextG was authorized to install and operate a form of small cell technology, known as distributed antennae systems (“DAS”), to expand existing wireless telephone services and coverage by installing its equipment within the public right of way (“ROW”), mostly on pre-existing utility poles. Between 2011 and 2015, NextG installed nine nodes within the public ROW on existing utility poles.

The RUA precluded NextG from assigning or transferring its rights under the agreement, except in limited circumstances and only with prior written notice of its intent to make such a transfer. Thereafter, on April 10, 2012, NextG became a wholly owned indirect subsidiary of Crown Castle International Corp., but NextG did not notify the City of its transfer of rights under the RUA until May 25, 2012.

In December of 2015, in some unspecified manner, Crown Castle advised the City of its intent to install equipment cabinets within the public ROW that are dimensionally larger than the pre-existing cabinets. The request was memorialized in a letter from Crown Castle to the City Council on April 8, 2016. In a subsequent letter, dated June 24, 2016, Crown Castle requested that the City Council adopt a resolution confirming that its application to install larger equipment cabinets was a Type II action under SEQRA or, alternatively, adopt a SEQRA “negative declaration” at its next public meeting.

Public hearings were held on Crown Castle’s application in July, August, and October of 2016 and in April of 2017. At the October 5, 2016 public hearing, the City Council declared its intention to as serve as lead agency for purposes of reviewing Crown Castle’s application under SEQRA. During the April 22, 2017 public hearing, the City Council issued a “positive declaration” for the proposed project under SEQRA. It also indicated that, in the event that the application is determined to be exempt from SEQRA, the application should be denied.

A positive declaration is a determination that an action may result in one or more significant environmental impacts and requires a comprehensive environmental review of the action, including the preparation and review of an environmental impact statement (“EIS”), before an agency decision may be made regarding the action. The SEQRA regulations contain mandatory minimum and maximum time periods associated with the processing of EISs that necessarily postpones a lead agency’s final decision until after the SEQRA process has been completed. A negative declaration is a determination by the lead agency that an action will not result in a significant adverse environmental impact and consequently no EIS will be prepared.

Following the City Council’s adoption of a positive declaration, Crown Castle commenced an action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, entitled Crown Castle NG East LLC v. The City of Rye, et al., 17 CV 3535 (E.D.N.Y., December 8, 2017), alleging that the City and City Council violated the RUA and the TCA.  Crown Castle also alleged claims under Article 78 of the CPLR and the New York State Transportation Corporations Law (“TCL”). The City moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that Crown Castle failed to state a TCA claim.

Section 253(a) of the TCA provides that “no State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.” Section 253(c) further provides that “nothing in this section affects the authority of a . . . local government to manage the public rights-of-way . . . on a competitively neutral and nondiscriminatory basis.” Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) states that “any decision by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof to deny a request to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence in a written record.”

With respect Crown Castle’s claim that the City’s 18-month delay in providing a decision on its application amounted to a prohibition of telecommunications services under TCA § 253(a), the Court disagreed and held that the City’s review process, including the associated SEQRA review, was not a “legal requirement” prohibited under TCA § 253(a). It also noted that the TCA does not render a SEQRA review or any delays associated with that review a violation of federal law.

In support of its holding, the Court cited the District Court’s decision in New York SMSA Ltd. P’Ship v. Town of Riverhead Town Board, 118 F.Supp.2d 333 (E.D.N.Y. 2000), aff’d, 45 Fed App’x. 24 (2d Cir. 2002), where the court noted that “a positive SEQRA declaration necessarily delays a final decision” and that “this court will not hold that a local government’s invocation of that statute is precluded because of the existence of the TCA.” The Court also held that municipal review alone cannot be a proscribed barrier to entry under Section 253(a) because the TCA § 332 requirement for “substantial evidence” necessitates a thorough review in order to justify the denial of a request to place, construct, or modify wireless facilities.

The Court also rejected Crown’s other TCA claims. It found that TCA § 253(c) does not create a stand-alone violation of the TCA because it is a safe harbor for municipalities or a “savings clause” that carves out liability rather than imposes it. The Court also found that because the City’s “denial” was hypothetical, it was neither a “regulation” nor a “decision” for purposes of stating a TCA § 332(c)(7)(B) claim. Moreover, the Court noted that the purported “denial” was not a final decision for Section 332 because a SEQRA positive declaration is not a final agency decision that is reviewable under New York law. Accordingly, the City’s motion to dismiss was granted.

The dispute continued in the Westchester County Supreme Court in Crown Castle NG East LLC v. The City of Rye, et al., 50310/18 (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co., August 20, 2018), wherein Crown Castle sought to have its state law claims adjudicated. However, the Court never addressed the merits of the state law claims because it concluded that Crown Castle was not a proper assignee or transferee under the RUA and, therefore, did not have standing to maintain the proceeding.

While these two decisions represent significant victories for the City of Rye and its residents, both decisions were made on procedural grounds, and neither addressed the merits of Crown Castle’s federal and state law claims. Communities throughout New York and elsewhere that have been presented with applications for the installation of small cell nodes will undoubtedly be watching closely to see how Crown Castle’s battle with the City of Rye ultimately plays out.

If you have any questions concerning the subject matter of this post, please contact Anthony at aguardino@farrellfritz.com.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following the adoption of a moratorium on development along Port Washington’s waterfront, North Hempstead Town officials have proposed new zoning regulations designed to preserve public access and prevent excess building in Port Washington’s Waterfront Business (“B-W”) District.  The Town’s B-W District encompasses approximately 10 acres adjacent to Manhasset Bay, and runs along the west side of Main Street from Sunset Park to Dolphin Green.  According to North Hempstead Town Code, Article XVIIA, the B-W District was established “to promote, enhance and encourage water-dependent uses and increase opportunities for public access along the Town’s commercial waterfront.”

At a well-attended meeting held on July 25, 2018, at the Port Washington Public Library, Supervisor Judi Bosworth, Councilwoman Dina De Giorgio and Commissioner of Planning Michael  Levine, using PowerPoint slides, presented the Town’s findings made during the moratorium and their ideas and proposals for new zoning regulations in the B-W District.

Commissioner Levine compared the unique character of Port Washington’s waterfront to vibrant waterfront communities on Long Island, such as Port Jefferson, Northport and Greenport, and also Newport, Rhode Island, all of which provided inspiration for the proposed changes.  He then identified the goals and objectives of the new zoning regulations, which include encouraging an appropriate mix of land uses, contextual building design, and the creation of more public access and open space.  The proposed regulations are intended to create a more vibrant and accessible waterfront community, while maintaining the area’s small-town character.

In order to accomplish the stated goals and objectives, the proposed regulations would place additional limits on building height and density to reduce the scale of development and require that new structures be arranged so that Manhasset Bay is both visible from the street and accessible to the public.  This would be accomplished by requiring, among other things, a minimum view corridor of at least 35 feet extending from the front property line to the water’s edge.  A public access corridor of at least 20 feet would also be required along the shoreline that would allow the Town to extend the Bay Walk south to Sunset Park.

While the proposed regulations call for a reduction in the “as of right” height limit and density, they offer incentives for increased height and density to developers who propose smaller buildings, provide additional open space, and incorporate “green” sustainable infrastructure and enhanced architectural design elements into their buildings.  For instance, the 18 dwelling units per acre baseline density for residential buildings in the B-W zone may be increased up to 36 dwelling units per acre based on a numerical scoring system that rewards developments that maximize open space and public access and are designed with desirable architectural elements.

In addition to changes to the bulk and area requirements of the zone, certain developments proposed in the B-W District would be subject to an amended review process under the new regulations.  New development on properties larger than 25,000 square feet would be subject to site plan approval by the North Hempstead Town Board, which would review the layout of the building on the site and the adequacy of landscaping, lighting and building design.  Developments which propose a residential component would also require a special use permit from the Town Board.

According to Town officials, the Town Board intends to hold a public hearing to consider the adoption of new regulations for the B-W District in the fall, prior to the expiration of the moratorium in November 2018.

Questions regarding zoning regulations in Port Washington or the Town of North Hempstead?  Please contact me at aguardino@farrellfritz.com.

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Local governments in New York may regulate land use within their borders directly through their zoning codes and indirectly by adopting a variety of other statutes and regulations. There are, however, limits to their power. Municipalities, of course, must not discriminate on the basis of religion in violation of the U.S. or New York State Constitutions or other applicable federal or state laws.

That message was delivered loud and clear in a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in a long-running court battle over a proposed rabbinical college in the Village of Pomona, in Rockland County.  In Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 07-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2017), the Court, following a 10-day bench trial, ruled that the Village could not use zoning and other laws it adopted to thwart the construction of the rabbinical college and associated dormitory housing proposed in the community.  In an earlier proceeding to consider the parties’ motions for summary judgment and a punitive motion for sanctions against the Village for the spoliation of evidence, the Court granted portions of each party’s motion, including the sanctions motion that resulted in an award of attorneys’ fees and costs relating to the spoliation dispute.  See Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 7-2007-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. 2015).  For a more detailed discussion of the pre-trial motions, see Charlotte Biblow’s two-part blog post, How To Spend Over $1.5 Million (And Counting) of Taxpayer Funds Defending A Land Use Claim and Facebook Posts And Text Messages Result In Monetary And Other Sanctions Being Imposed Against A Municipality.

The case involved approximately 100 acres of land in Pomona purchased in 2004 by the Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. Tartikov sought to build a “kollel” or rabbinical college on the property that would include housing for its students – all affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish community, including various sects of the Hasidic community – and the students’ families. According to Tartikov, the on-campus housing would permit students to study from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and also to meet their religious obligations to their families.

Tartikov and future students and faculty (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) commenced an action in 2007 to challenge portions of three laws that Pomona adopted: an “Accreditation Law,” which defined educational institutions and dormitories; a “Dormitory Law,” which limited the size of dormitories; and a “Wetlands Law,” which established wetlands protections in the Village (collectively, the “Challenged Laws”).  The Plaintiffs argued that the Challenged Laws effectively prevented the construction of Tartikov’s rabbinical college in the Village and were discriminatory and substantially burdened their religious exercise.  The Village claimed that the Challenged Laws had been passed for legitimate reasons and were intended to prevent the construction of a large number of housing units for students and their families that the Village contended would overburden its infrastructure and detract from its rural character.

The Court ruled that the Village passed the Challenged Laws “with a discriminatory purpose.”  Specifically, the Court opined that the Village enacted the Challenged Laws to prevent the spread of the Orthodox/Hasidic community within the Village, and, in certain respects, to specifically target Tartikov and the property it owned. The Court said that it based this conclusion “on the context in which the laws were adopted” and “the unsatisfactory and incredible reasons presented for their adoption.”  The Court noted that a number of Village officials had made statements indicative of their prejudice towards Tartikov and Orthodox/Hasidic Jews. The Court also pointed out that members of the community expressed animus towards Orthodox/Hasidic Jews and that the Village’s Board of Trustees “acted on that animus.”

While the Court invalidated the Challenged Laws as a violation of the Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion and equal protection of the laws, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.  3601 et seq., as well as their right to freedom of worship under the New York Constitution, local government officials and their counsel should be guided by the Court’s critical focus on the discriminatory motives behind the Village’s adoption of these laws. The evidence cited by the Court for its conclusions and its application of that evidence to constitutional and statutory standards highlights the official and non-official actions that government officials should avoid when faced with similar circumstances.

On March 28, 2018, the Babylon Town Board adopted a moratorium on any new land use applications that seek to increase a parcel’s wastewater limits established by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (“SCDHS”) by utilizing Pine Barrens Credits (“PBC”), which effectively transfer development rights from other parts of Suffolk County to properties within the Town of Babylon.  During the period of the moratorium, the Town plans to study the potential impacts to groundwater from allowing developers to increase development density by acquiring PBCs.

The concept of transferring development rights using PBCs derives from the Long Island Pine Barrens Maritime Reserve Act, which was adopted in 1993 for the purpose of protecting approximately 100,000 acres of the Long Island Pine Barrens located within the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.  As one method of land preservation, the Act authorizes the creation of a transfer of development rights (“TDR”) program, the specifics of which are set forth in the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan (“Plan”).  Under the TDR program, a PBC can be used to transfer the development potential from a parcel of property within the protected Pine Barrens Core Preservation Area (“Core”), or other environmentally-sensitive area identified in the Plan (a “sending parcel”), to a parcel in a designated area outside the Core (a “receiving parcel”).  Upon acceptance of the PBC, the sending parcel’s development rights are transferred to the receiving parcel, which may now be developed more intensely.  For a more detailed discussion of the Pine Barrens TDR program, see John Armentano’s blog post, Pine Barren Credits – There’s Money In Those Trees.

Historically, PBCs have been accepted by several towns and by the SCDHS to permit a new development project, or an expansion or change of use of an existing building, that will result in a wastewater discharge (effluent loading) that exceeds the SCDHS’s allowable sanitary flow rate for parcels that are served by an individual on-site sewerage system (i.e., not connected to a municipal sewer system).  The allowable flow rate for a particular parcel is set forth in Article 6 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code and is calculated based on the proposed use, and size of the building and the parcel on which it sits, as well as the hydrogeological (groundwater recharge) zone in which the parcel is located.  A PBC may be used to permit additional effluent loading up to a maximum of twice the allowable density.

Following the recent approval of two development projects in North Babylon and Deer Park, the Town has decided to take a closer look at the environmental consequences of allowing for increased density.  According to Richard Groh, the Town’s chief environmental analyst, the Town’s planning and environmental control departments have formed a working group to study the impacts to groundwater that will result from continuing the practice of accepting PBCs to increase development density.  Upon completion of the study, the group will submit its recommendations to the Town Board for consideration.

In Matter of Save America’s Clocks, Inc. v. City of New York, the majority of a divided 3-2 Appellate Division, First Department, panel attempted to clarify the authority of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) under the New York City Landmarks Preservation and Historic Districts Law (“Landmarks Law”).  The majority ruled that the LPC may require a private owner of property purchased subject to a prior interior landmark designation to preserve the historic character and operation of the interior landmark and to continue to permit at least minimal public access to it.

The case involved a 19th Century building in lower Manhattan and, in particular, the clocktower atop the building’s western end, which houses a purely mechanical tower clock with a mechanism similar to London’s “Big Ben.” A room on the building’s fourteenth floor has an interior spiral staircase that leads up to a landing housing the clock’s pendulum, and then to the clocktower’s machine room, where the clock mechanism sits.  Above the mechanism is the clock’s 5,000 pound bell.

New York City owned the building from 1968 until 2013, and used it to house courts and city government offices.  During that time, the LPC designated the exterior of the building a landmark, as well as 10 interior spaces of the building as interior landmarks, including the clocktower gallery, the clocktower machinery room, and the “No. 4 Striking Tower Clock.”  The City conveyed the building to a private developer in December 2013, by a deed that expressly provided that the conveyance was subject to the landmark designation.

Shortly thereafter, the new owner submitted an application for a certificate of appropriateness (COA) to the LPC, seeking permission to refurbish the building’s exterior and interior and to modify some of the landmarked interior spaces. Among other things, the application requested permission to convert the clocktower into a triplex private apartment, to disconnect the clock from its mechanism, and to electrify the clock.

The LPC held a public hearing on the owner’s application. There, the LPC’s counsel advised the commissioners that the LPC did not have the power under the Landmarks Law to require “interior-designated spaces to remain public” and “to require that [the clock] mechanism remain operable.” The LPC then approved the COA.

After various individuals and organizations challenged the LPC’s decision in an article 78 proceeding, a decision by Supreme Court, New York County, partially annulled the COA to the extent that it allowed work inside the clocktower that would completely eliminate public access and allowed work that would convert the clock from a mechanical to an electrical system of operation.  The decision was appealed to the Appellate Division, First Department.

Over the dissent of two justices, a majority of the panel affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision after finding that LPC’s determination was irrational and affected by an error of law because it was based on the erroneous advice of its counsel that caused a misunderstanding of LPC’s authority under the Landmarks Law.  The court concluded that, contrary to the legal advice it received, the LPC has the authority under the Landmarks Law to regulate the clock mechanism because it effectuates the Landmarks Law’s statutory purposes and because the law’s language “clearly gives the LPC authority to require the owner to run the clock by its still functioning mechanism and to deny the request to electrify it.”

The court reasoned that the LPC had designated the building’s fourteenth floor interior, including the clocktower machinery room and the clock machinery, as an interior landmark because the clock’s mechanism “represents an element of the city’s cultural and economic history and contributes to the building’s historical value,” and because maintaining it “would promote pride in the ‘accomplishments of the past’ and advance the [Landmarks Law’s] statutory purposes.”

Moreover, the court said, the LPC’s approval of the clock mechanism proposal was not rational. In the court’s view, the building’s “majestic clock, and its historically significant functioning mechanism, is a perfect example of the very reason the Landmarks Law exists,” because, as provided in Section 25-301(b), the “protection, . . . perpetuation, and use of [objects] of special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value is a public necessity.”

The court also examined whether the LPC has the authority to retain public access to the clocktower, and ruled that, under the Landmarks Law, the LPC may reject a COA that would cause a designated interior to be inaccessible to the public, and may require the owner to continue to provide at least some degree of public access.  The court reasoned that the statutory purposes of the Landmarks Law would be thwarted if the public was denied access to the clocktower and the opportunity to view its historic mechanism.

Whether the First Department’s decision will be the final word on this issue remains to be seen as the sharp division in the panel makes it likely that the case will make its way up to the Court of Appeals.  For now, however, the decision means that the Landmarks Law permits the LPC to require the private owner of property purchased subject to a prior interior landmark designation to preserve the historic character and operation of the interior landmark and to continue to permit at least minimal public access to it.

A fierce legal battle is currently being waged between preservationists and the City of New York (“City”) over a parcel of land in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, known as Marx Brothers Playground.  The parcel, which is located between 96th and 97th Streets on Second Avenue, is named after legendary comics Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, who were raised at nearby 179 East 93rd Street.  The 1.5-acre public recreation area was created in 1947, and currently contains soccer and baseball fields.  The portion of the site where the playground was located is temporarily being used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority as a staging area for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway.  The entire site is slated for redevelopment by a private developer, who plans to construct a high-rise, mixed-use building containing more than 1,200 apartments, three schools and commercial space.

Although City Parks Department’s leaf logo adorns the site, the property is officially classified as a “jointly operated playground” or “JOP” because it was established under the joint jurisdiction of both the Parks Department and Department of Education, which operates an adjacent vocational high school.  Typically, a JOP is used by the students of the adjacent school during the school day, and the general public outside of school hours.

In an effort to stop the proposed project, preservationists recently commenced an Article 78 proceeding, entitled Carnegie Hill Neighbors, Inc. v. City of New York (Index No. 161375/20017). The preservationists claim, among other things, that Marx Brothers Playground is parkland and, as such, cannot be conveyed by the City to a private developer without State legislation authorizing the termination of its use as a park and its transfer from the City.  Other opponents of the project fear that the redevelopment of the playground will create a slippery slope that will lead to private developers targeting other City-owned recreation facilities.  City officials, on the other hand, insist that the space is a playground, as its name suggests, and not parkland.  They also point out that the City plans to relocate and replace the playground elsewhere on the block.

What appears to be a minor matter of semantics is actually crucial to the outcome of the dispute.  That is because under the State’s public trust doctrine, parks cannot be “alienated” or used for an extended period for non-park purposes without State legislative approval.  The City claims that there is no similar requirement for playgrounds.  A parcel of land may constitute parkland either by express dedication, such as by deed or legislative enactment, or by implied dedication, such as by a continuous use of the property as a public park or recreation area.  Once land is dedicated to parkland use, the dedication is irrevocable absent specific State legislative approval.

The public trust doctrine can trace its roots to the nearly century-old case of Williams v. Gallatin, 229 NY 248 (1920), when a taxpayer sought to enjoin the City’s Commissioner of Parks from leasing the Central Park Arsenal Building to the Safety Institute of America, arguing that the transaction was “foreign to park purposes.” In prohibiting the lease, the Court of Appeals found that a park was a recreational pleasure area set aside to promote public health and welfare and, as such, “no objects, however worthy…which have no connection with park purposes, should be permitted to encroach upon [parkland] without legislative authority plainly conferred.” The Court stated that the legislative will was that Central Park “should be kept open as a public park ought to be and not be turned over by the commissioner of parks to other uses. It must be kept free from intrusion of every kind which would interfere in any degree with its complete use for this end.”

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the City Council and State Legislature had apparently determined that Marx Brothers Playground was, in fact, parkland, because the City Council submitted a “Home Rule Request” to the State Legislature seeking authority to “alienate” or discontinue its use as parkland.  The Legislature quickly acted on the request and passed bills (A. 8419/S. 6721) entitled “[a]n Act in relation to authorizing discontinuance of the use as parkland of the land in the City of New York commonly known as the Marx Brothers Playground.”  Opponents of the City’s plan appealed to the Governor to veto the legislation.  Governor Cuomo eventually signed the legislation, but he attached a “chapter amendment” in the form of a memorandum that ordered Rose Harvey, Commissioner of the State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, to “investigate all of the property’s historical records, uses, and any other factor relevant to the land’s designation.”

As a result of this unusual move by the Governor, the City must now wait for Commissioner Harvey’s assessment before it can proceed with its plans.  It will also have to wait for the pending lawsuit to play out in the Supreme Court.

Fire Island is a 32-mile long, slender barrier sand bar island located between the Atlantic Ocean and the South Shore of Long Island.  The island, which varies in width from as little as about 550 feet to not more than about 1,760 feet, divides the Great South Bay and the westerly end of Moriches Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.  In a letter report prepared by the Department of the Interior in 1963 for the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Fire Island was described as containing “an impressive array of seashore resources,” including beaches that are “wide, clean, and gently sloping” and dunes that are “imposing and usually well stabilized by beach grass, bayberry, other vegetation, and some lowlying pitch pine.”  See, 1964 U.S.Code Cong. & Adm. News, p. 3714.  The report referred to the sunken forest in the western half of the island as “a gem of its kind,” dominated by several hundred year-old American holly trees.

In apparent concern for the potential destruction of Fire Island’s unique environmental resources, Congress passed the Fire Island National Seashore Act, 16 U.S.C. § 459e et seq. (“Act”) on September 11, 1964, which established the “Fire Island National Seashore” (“Seashore”).  The stated purpose of the Act was to conserve and preserve the Seashore’s “relatively unspoiled and undeveloped beaches, dunes, and other natural features.”

To achieve this objective, Congress provided the Secretary of the Interior (“Secretary”) with broad authority to condemn unimproved, privately-owned properties, and in limited situations, private properties that are being used in a manner that is inconsistent with any applicable standard contained in regulations promulgated under the Act.  The regulations, codified at 36 CFR Part 28, also set forth Federal standards to which local zoning ordinances must conform, articulating limitations on use, location, and size of structures on public and private property within the boundaries of the Seashore in order to reconcile the population density of the Seashore with the protection of its natural resources.

The Federal standards divide the Seashore into three distinct land use districts – the Community Development District, the Seashore District and the Dune District.  The Community Development District generally permits construction or expansion of existing residential units, religious institutions, schools and commercial units in existence before 1964.  The Seashore District permits alterations of existing improved properties, but prohibits new construction.  The Dune District prohibits all construction after 1978, except for dune crossing structures deemed necessary for public access to the beach.

Despite the Federal oversight, the Act does not preempt the four municipalities within the Seashore – the towns of Brookhaven and Islip, and the villages of Ocean Beach and Saltaire – from enacting and enforcing their own zoning regulations or granting variances and other zoning approvals.  Instead, the Act directs the Secretary to establish guidelines for local zoning authorities to use in developing local zoning regulations that conform to the Federal standards, as well as a process by which the Superintendent of the Fire Island National Seashore (“Superintendent”) shall receive copies of all applications for variances, exceptions, special permits, and permits for commercial and industrial uses, notices of all public hearings concerning said applications, and notices of the final action taken on such applications from the local zoning authorities.

The Secretary is charged with reviewing local zoning regulations to ensure that they are consistent with the Act and its implementing regulations.  The Secretary must disapprove any zoning ordinance or amendment thereof that he considers adverse to the protection and development of the Seashore, or which fails to include requirements that the Secretary receive notice of certain land use approvals and permits granted by the local zoning authority.  Properties that are developed in accordance with an approved ordinance, or which are the subject of variances and other land use approvals that result in such property being used in a manner that conforms to the Federal standards are protected from condemnation under the Act.  By 1985, the Secretary had approved compliance with Federal standards for the four zoning jurisdictions within the Seashore.

As a result, applicants seeking to construct new or expanded structures within the Seashore must now comply with both the federal zoning standards and the applicable zoning regulations of the local zoning authority.  In recognition of the concurrent Federal jurisdiction within the Seashore, the codes of the towns of Brookhaven and Islip have regulations that specifically pertain to properties within the Seashore.  See, Brookhaven Town Code, Ch. 85, Art. XVIII; Islip Town Code, Ch. 68, Art. XXXVIII.  Similarly, the Village of Ocean Beach has adopted regulations that largely mirror the Federal regulations that require that the Superintendent be provided with notice of applications for building permits and certain zoning applications, as well as notice of final actions taken on said applications.  See, Ocean Beach Village Code § 164-4.

To protect their property from the risk of future condemnation, applicants seeking to construct, reconstruct or alter structures within the Seashore, and their consultants, should take the time to carefully review the Federal standards, as well as the local zoning regulations.  They should also closely monitor the processing of their application to ensure that the local zoning authority has properly referred the building permit or zoning application to the Superintendent of the Seashore.

Owners of property within the Seashore who have questions about the process should visit https://www.nps.gov/fiis/learn/management/federal-review-building-zoning-permits.htm or contact the local National Park Service office at (631) 687-4750.

In this post, which is the third and final segment of a three-part series, we look at real property recording and related fees, which have increased significantly in Nassau and Suffolk Counties in recent years. Like illegal impact fees and excessive administrative review fees, fees related to the recording of legal instruments are being used by both Nassau and Suffolk Counties as another revenue-generating measure to help balance their budgets. Since many of these ever-increasing fees appear to have no correlation to the cost of the services being performed to record the documents, they are viewed by many as being tantamount to another unauthorized and illegal tax.

Document Recording Process

Documents that relate to interests in real property in New York, such as deeds, leases, easements, restrictive covenants, mortgages and subdivision plats, are typically recorded in order to provide the public with constructive notice of these interests and to assist in determining ownership rights and other claims. In most cases, these documents are recorded in the county where the property is located and maintained by the county clerk.

Prior to recording, each document is generally proofread to ensure that the important details of the instrument are correct. Each document is then given book and page numbers, or in the case of subdivision plats a map number, which are useful to individuals who want to look up or research the recorded documents. Thereafter, each document is electronically imaged and the original is returned to the party indicated on the document.

Document Recording and Related Fees

The document recording process is an important county clerk function requiring a large staff and equipment that are not without cost. To offset the cost of the document recording process, county clerks typically charge a base fee for the recording service, as well as a per page fee to record a particular document. In recent years, the total cost to record a document has increased dramatically, while the process for doing so has remained largely static.

For instance, a person wishing to record a real estate document in Suffolk County must first now pay a Real Property Tax Service Verification Fee of $200 for each tax lot that the instrument is to be recorded against, plus a $20 handling fee, a $5 per page fee, a $5 Commissioner of Education Fee and a $15 Cultural Education Fund fee. Effective January 1, 2017, persons wishing to record a mortgage in Suffolk County must also pay a $300 Mortgage Verification Fee.

In Nassau County, in order to a record a real estate document, a person must pay a $300 block recording fee, a base recording fee of $40, and a $5 per page fee. In 2009, the block recording fee was just $10. However, within just one year the block recording fee was increased by 1,400% to $150. It doubled again in 2015 to its current amount. In Nassau County these same fees apply to a person who wishes to record a satisfaction of mortgage. In addition to these fees, the Nassau County Department of Assessment implemented a Tax Map Certification requirement in 2015 for all deeds, mortgages, satisfactions, assignments and consolidations. This process requires that each document have its Nassau County Tax Map Number verified with the Department of Assessment before it can be presented for recording in the Clerk’s office. Documents presented without the Department of Assessment certification page cannot be accepted for recording. The charge for this service was originally $75, but within just a few short years was increased by nearly 400% to the current fee of $355 per tax map verification letter (“TMVL”).

According to a Newsday report written at about the same time when the new real estate fees and fee increases went into effect, these fees were estimated to generate $35.6 million in revenue for the County government, but will make Nassau’s closing costs among the highest in the State. These new and increased fees often add thousands of dollars to the cost of buying and selling a property in Nassau County, particularly where a mortgage is involved. And, if there are any errors in the recorded documents that need to be corrected, the County requires payment of recording fee for a second time.

Nassau County Legislator Howard Kopel, a critic of the fee increases, and the only legislator to vote against the increases, argued that they were not justified because fees are supposed to correlate to the County’s cost to provide the service. Some lawmakers who voted in favor of the increases shifted the blame for the increased fees to the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), which allegedly demanded that the County budget include additional revenue.

Since the law does not require a deed or other instrument to be recorded, those who cannot afford the exorbitant recording fees may be forced to forego the recording process altogether. They may also choose not to take action to correct known defects or errors in recorded documents. The failure to record original and corrected documents will compromise the integrity of the county recording systems by making the information they maintain less reliable. This will undoubtedly lead to disputes over property ownership and other interests in real property and cause rightful owners to lose their property interests to bona fide purchasers who did not have constructive notice of the rightful owner’s interest. Thus, the excessive recording fees being charged may actually lead to the very problems that our recording systems are designed to avoid.

Regardless of who is responsible for the increased real estate fees, the steep trajectory of the increases makes it highly unlikely that the recording fees being charged in both Nassau and Suffolk counties are commensurate with the actual cost of recording a document. Moreover, because the recording fees are actually generating revenue in both counties, those who claim such fees are actually an illegal tax appear to be justified in their position.

 

In Matter of Avella v. City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 04383 (June 6, 2017), the New York Court of Appeals reviewed a decision by the City of New York approving a proposal by Queens Development Group, LLC (“QDG”) which sought to construct a large-scale retail, restaurant and movie theater complex known as “Willets West,” on the portion of Flushing Meadows Park where Shea Stadium once stood – currently, the parking lot for Citi Field.  The development was part of QDG’s larger redevelopment plan for Willets Point, a blighted area adjacent to Citi Field.  QDG included Willets West in the development proposal under the theory that “the creation of a retail and entertainment center at Willets West w[ould] spur a critical perception change of Willets Point, establishing a sense of place and making it a destination where people want to live, work, and visit.”

After the City approved QDG’s proposal, a state senator, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, taxpayers, and users of Flushing Meadows Park brought an action seeking to enjoin the proposed development.  They claimed that because the Willets West development was located within designated parkland, the public trust doctrine required legislative authorization, which had not been granted.

The Supreme Court, New York County, denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. The Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously reversed and granted the petition to the extent of declaring that construction of Willets West on City parkland “without the authorization of the state legislature” violated the public trust doctrine, and enjoined further construction.  The Court of Appeals granted QDG leave to appeal and affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.

The Court began its analysis by discussing the public trust doctrine from Brooklyn Park Commrs. v. Armstrong, 45 N.Y. 234 (1871) – a decision it issued nearly 150 years ago – where the Court held that, when a municipality has taken land “for the public use as a park,” it must hold that property “in trust for that purpose” and may not convey it without the sanction of the legislature.  The Court also held that the legislature’s authorization to alienate land held in public trust must be “plainly conferred” by its “direct and specific approval.”

Applying these principles, the Court examined whether the State legislature had authorized construction at Willets West, on property that the petitioners contended was City parkland. To address that inquiry, the Court reviewed the legislation the State legislature had enacted in 1961 authorizing the development of a sports stadium on City parkland that came to be known as Shea Stadium. The Court ruled that, since a shopping mall and movie theater were not consistent with typical uses of a stadium, the statute did not authorize the Willets West development.

The Court also considered the legislative history of the statute and ruled that it too demonstrated that the legislature had only authorized the land to be rented for public stadium use, not for private business purposes.

The Court concluded that the legislative authorization to rent the stadium and its grounds to private parties could not “under our longstanding construction of the public trust doctrine, constitute legislative authorization to build a shopping mall or movie theater.”

Interestingly, the Court acknowledged that the remediation of Willets Point was “a laudable goal” and that QDG’s Willets West development would immensely benefit the people of New York City by transforming a blighted area into a new, vibrant community.  Nonetheless, it pointed out that those contentions had no place in its consideration of whether the legislature had granted authorization for the Willets West development on City parkland that was held in the public trust.  Of course, it concluded, the legislature was free to alienate all or part of the parkland for whatever purposes it were to see fit, provided that it does so through direct and specific legislation that expressly authorizes the desired alienation.

While the Court’s ruling does not impact the mixed-use redevelopment proposed for Willets East, QDG is reportedly evaluating its next steps for the project.