It is well established that zoning codes and regulations are in derogation of property owners’ rights in and to the use of their property. Zoning restricts the use of land which was otherwise free of restrictions.  An owner’s rights in use of land are among the oldest and enjoy the most protection under common law and state and federal constitutions. Therefore, the courts of New York have regularly and consistently held that (1) any such codes and regulations must be strictly construed and (2) any ambiguity must be construed against the municipality and in favor of the property owner:

“Since zoning regulations are in derogation of the common law, they must be strictly construed against the municipality which has enacted and seeks to enforce them. Any ambiguity in the language used in such regulations must be resolved in favor of the property owner.”

Because of the heightened scrutiny of zoning regulations for ambiguity, they are difficult to draft and often subject to litigation – which can get deep into the weeds of statutory construction and even grammar. For example, where a zoning code required site plan review for “any new construction or any addition thereto in excess of 2000 sq. ft.,” the Zoning Board found that the limitation of 2,000 sq. ft. applied only to “any addition” and not to “any new construction.” The Third Department reversed, in part because there was no comma between “thereto” and “in excess of.” Your high school English (or Latin) teacher would rejoice at the deconstructive analysis.

Other examples: Does prohibition of car storage prohibit a parking garage, where there is no definition of “storage” in the code? (Answer = No; parking garage is OK) Is a code validly applied which does not allow an owner to “store” a boat in the front yard, where there is, again, no definition of how long a boat must be in the front yard to be deemed to be “stored” there? (Answer = Code not valid because of ambiguity.) Can a code require building permits for all construction “other than ordinary repairs that are not structural?” (Answer = No; code invalidly applied because there was no definition of what constitutes “ordinary” or “not structural” repairs.) Is a helicopter pad an “airport” which is defined as a landing area that is used “regularly?” (Answer = Yes; it was used frequently enough to be deemed “regular.”)

A recent code amendment in an East End municipality requires that driveway gates must have a “setback to the street” of no less than 20 feet or 40 feet (depending on lot size). What is the “street?” The paved roadway? The lot line dividing the private property from the municipality’s right-of-way for the road? The difference could be 10 or 15 feet or more of unpaved verge or shoulder between the pavement and the lot line.

The difficulty in drafting is highlighted by these cases which pit the purportedly “obvious” reading of the code against the rule of strict construction – resolving any ambiguity in favor of the property owner. The burden on the municipality is especially acute where municipal officials come up with different interpretations. The statute is certainly vague and ambiguous when reasonable municipal minds differ – when “reasonable enforcement officers could come to different conclusions” – and they actually did.

Moreover, the New York courts have rejected the argument that Zoning Boards have the authority to remove the ambiguity by choosing the interpretation that the Board prefers. Rather, the courts recognize that while a board’s interpretation is entitled to deference in most situations, where the statute is ambiguous the question becomes a matter of law and the usual deference does not apply.

In a recent Zoning Board case, the same beneficial owners had a residence on one lot and a tennis court, without a home, on another immediately adjacent lot. There was no dispute that the tennis court was a valid subordinate use to the adjacent residence. However, the municipality would not approve a certificate of occupancy for the tennis court because there was no residence on the court property. There was no direct prohibition in the zoning code of an accessory use on a lot without a principal use. The municipality relied solely and entirely on the code’s definition of accessory use as:

“A subordinate use, building or structure customarily incidental to and located on the same lot occupied by the main use, building or structure. The term . . .”accessory structure” may include a . . . tennis court. . . .” (Emphasis added)

The owners sought relief in two separate ways. First, they argued for an interpretation that the code did not require that the tennis court and the dwelling be on the same lot because the word “customarily” modified both “incidental to” and “located on the same lot.” Therefore, an accessory structure is defined as only customarily located on the same lot as the main use. “Customarily” does not mean “always” or “required.” At the very least, the code was ambiguous on this point and, they argued, could not be used by the municipality to deny the owners the right to maintain the tennis court on the lot by itself.

The owners also sought a variance to allow the stand-alone tennis court in the event that the Zoning Board rejected their ambiguity argument. The Zoning Board rejected the argument that the ambiguity of the code section made it unenforceable, finding that they had regularly interpreted the code against the owners’ position. However, the Zoning Board granted the variance allowing the tennis court to exist without a main use on the same lot. A court might have overturned the Board’s contention that it had the right to interpret the ambiguous language in favor of the municipality, since that issue is a matter of law and the interpretation must be in favor of the property owner. But the bottom line is that the applicants got their tennis court and probably don’t care that it was by variance and not by voiding or interpreting an ambiguous code provision – and an Article 78 was averted.

And therein lies the point of this blog: The “ambiguity” rule can be difficult for applicants because courts can, and do, find that the code is not so ambiguous after all. On the other hand, zoning and planning Boards – and, especially, their counsel – know that the “ambiguity” rule is deep-rooted in New York law and that the courts do not hesitate to apply the rule as a matter of law, without deference to the boards. The bottom line is that making a legitimate “ambiguity rule” argument at the municipal board level can be successful in itself, but it is perhaps most important as a prod to the board to grant a variance or site plan or other municipal approval.

A not-so-clear code provision can be very helpful in obtaining a municipal approval!





In Miranda Holdings v. Town Board of Town of Orchard Park, ____ N.Y.S. 3d, ____, 2017 WL 2884633 (4th Dept. July 7, 2017), Petitioner, Miranda, proposed a commercial structure that included a restaurant with a drive-through window. The Town Board was not happy.  Not only did the Board improperly declare the proposed restaurant with a drive-through as a Type I action under SEQRA, but also it required a full-blown EIS.  Further,  the Town enacted a local law specifically declaring that, going forward, all restaurants with a drive-through would be categorized as Type I actions.

Although the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s determination that that law does not allow the Town to reclassify actions in a manner that is contrary to the DEC classification, the Court, without any real explanation, remitted the matter back to the Town for further findings consistent with its opinion.

In Miranda’s favor, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision to invalidate the local law, which reclassified all restaurants with a drive-through as Type I actions wholly inconsistent with the DEC’s Type II designation.

The Town’s Actions

At first, the Town determined that the project was an Unlisted action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and SEQRA Regulations. See, 6 NYCRR Part 617. The Town issued a “positive declaration” requiring that Miranda prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). A full-blown EIS is difficult, time consuming and expensive. Unsurprisingly, Miranda claimed that the proposed project was a Type II action under the regulations and, therefore, was exempt from all environmental review and from preparing an EIS. In response, the Town passed a resolution making a drive-through restaurant project a Type I action, so that it was presumed to require an EIS. Miranda sued, arguing that the Town (1) was out of bounds, (2) was not allowed to make the project a Type I action because by its nature, it is a Type II action and (3) could not require that Miranda prepare an EIS.

What a mess! The Court’s decision does not add a lot of clarity.

The Trial Court Decision and SEQRA

Like ancient Gaul, all SEQRA actions are divided into three parts – Type I, Type II and Unlisted. A Type I action “carries with it the presumption that it is likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and may require an EIS. Type II actions are just the opposite – they are exempt from environmental review under SEQRA and thus not only is an EIS not required, but no review is technically required. “Unlisted” actions are everything that is neither Type I nor Type II, thus allowing latitude in what additional review is necessary.

Most Type I and Type II projects are defined in the NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) Regulations. For example, all permits and variances regarding single-family homes are Type II actions. However, municipalities may also adopt their own lists of Type I and Type II actions, so long as they do not conflict with the DEC’s lists. In particular, a municipality “may not designate as Type I any action identified as a Type II” in the DEC Regulations.

One of the actions identified as a Type II under the DEC Regulations is a commercial facility (or extension) of up to 4,000 sq. ft., which otherwise meets zoning, such as use restrictions, setbacks or height limits. When the Town initially determined that the proposed drive-through restaurant was “Unlisted,” the developer argued that this 4000-sq. ft. commercial facility provision made the project a defacto Type II action exempt from SEQRA. The Town’s reaction in passing the local law was to make all drive-through facilities into Type I actions – spurring the developer’s lawsuit, claiming that the Town could not convert a Type II action into a Type I action.

The trial court decided in Miranda’s favor, holding that because a drive-through facility was a Type II action under SEQRA, the Town could not automatically make it a Type I action.

The Court acknowledged that the Regulations do not specifically list drive-through facilities as Type II actions. However, the SEQRA Handbook published by the DEC does mention fast food facilities as being within the contemplation of the 4,000 sq. ft. Type II and also gives as an example of a Type II, the expansion of a commercial restaurant where the project is less than 4,000 sq. ft. The Court also noted that the Final Generic Environmental Impact Study prepared by DEC in connection with the 1995 adoption of proposed amendments to the Regulations – including the 4,000 sq. ft. commercial project as a Type II – directly referenced a “drive-through window” as part of the commercial expansion that would be exempted if the 4,000 sq. ft. limitation were met. Therefore, the Court concluded that the DEC “contemplated restaurants with drive-through windows as Type II actions.”

The Appellate Division Determination

However – and here is the mystery – the Appellate Division held that the Supreme Court should not have found that the proposed restaurant was a “4,000 sq. ft.” Type II – without “a revised review” by the Town. What is there to review?

The Appellate Division may have had some empathy with the Town’s concerns and afforded it the opportunity to look more closely at the proposed project. More fundamentally, the “4,000 sq. ft.” Type II is very broad and can easily include projects that pose potential for significant impacts, like traffic and air quality. Despite the fact that the DEC determined that projects of this limited size “do not rise to the level of significance envisioned by [SEQRA] as requiring an EIS,” perhaps other aspects of the proposed development needed further review by the Town.

What the Appellate Division did unequivocally declare is that a municipality cannot reclassify a project from a Type II to a Type I, as this is prohibited under SEQRA.  Invalidation of the local law was upheld.

The bottom line lesson is that municipalities should address planning and zoning concerns for their ordinary development through zoning and planning; not by a short cut in trying to stretch environmental review beyond the DEC regulations specific to each project.


East Hampton Town restricts the size of accessory structures to 600 s.f. (each) with no plumbing.   However, because of a long history of artists in the Town (e.g., Pollock, Willem and Elaine DeKooning), an artist’s studio is allowed to have a sink and to be as large as 2,500 s.f., depending on the size of the main house. Of course, you have to be an artist to have an artist’s studio: an “artist’s studio” may be “used only by an individual working in the fine arts on a professional basis.”

shutterstock_596874467For a long time, the building inspector’s office approved artists and their respective artist’s studio expanded accessory structure (greater than 600 s.f.).  The building inspector’s office was a bit loosey-goosey, allowing, for example, studios for knitting sweaters and the like. A few years ago, the Town tightened up the standards and required town board approval of the “artist”  in accordance with the definition set forth in the town code.  The approval is now being transferred to the planning board.

Approval of an artist’s studio requires recording a covenant stating that the non-conforming aspects of the approved studio (the sink and size over 600 s.f.) must be removed once the approved artist’s studio use is discontinued – usually because of the sale of the property to someone without an approved artist in the family. These covenants were almost universally ignored – until recently. The Town is now on a tear to get rid of artists’ studios without artists. The town is screening properties and owners and sending letters to non-artist owners of properties with an approved artist’s studio advising that the approval will expire in six months and that they must cease and desist from occupancy when the artist’s use ceases. The requirement to cease occupancy is usually included in the recorded covenant that was required when the use was approved.

There has been no litigation over the cease and desist regime, at least not so far.  For those who have received the cease and desist letter, or expect to receive one at some time in the future, the available remedies are as follows:

  1. Town board (or planning board) approval of the new owner as a bona fide artist.  This is notably harder than it used to be when applicants pushed the envelope to include studios for knitting sweaters or home repair of furniture.  The standards for compliance set forth in the Code include an application by the artist, who must then comply with the definition of an “artist” set forth in the code.   A person with training, but without exhibitions, might get approval; this is probably not the case for the sweater-knitter or home furniture repair ‘artist’.
  2. Obtain a variance to keep the existing building.  This probably would not work to keep the sink, but might work in particular circumstances – such as keeping a second floor studio space due to the  cost associated with removing it.  The normal balancing test for zoning variances (benefit to applicant v. detriment to neighborhood and community) would apply.  The town planners argue that building owners should not get a variance simply because of the inconvenience of achieving compliance  – especially because buyers had notice of the restrictions through the covenants filed.  The only variance granted recently was for a 150-year old cottage that had been converted to an artist’s studio and then sold by the artist to a non-artist.
  3. Achieve compliance – removing plumbing and reducing size to 600 square feet.
  4. Size reduction by conversion.  Actually making the whole building smaller (or the whole second floor smaller) can be both difficult and expensive. Size reduction by converting a part of the structure to storage might work. In the past, the building department has issued updated certificates of occupancy when a portion of the artist’s studio is converted to non-habitable storage space and is separated from the rest of the studio.  That portion is then not counted as habitable gross floor area, reducing the habitable size of the accessory structure to 600 s.f., thereby conforming to the accessory limits.  This may require a separate entrance to the storage area, no connection between the storage area and the remaining 600 s.f. portion, removal of insulation, etc. and even lowering the joists/cross beams to a non-habitable height, such as five feet.
  5. Litigation challenging the statute on fundamental constitutional issues is feasible. No one wants to go that route, at least so far, because the time and cost is impractical.