Immunity From Local Zoning

A recent decision by the Appellate Division decided that a village zoning code was inapplicable to a water district. As a result, the water district was able to proceed with replacement of one of its massive elevated water storage tanks and the village was powerless to use its zoning powers to either stop the construction or impose restrictions on the structure.

The case, Incorporated Village of Munsey Park v Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, 57 NY3d 154 [2d Dep’t 2017], involved a special district located within the Town of North Hempstead. The special district, the Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, supplies potable water to consumers located within the district’s boundaries. The water district uses its elevated water storage tanks to store water and maintain water pressure. One of the district’s storage tanks is on property owned by the water district that is located within the boundaries of the Village of Munsey Park (“Village”).

The elevated water storage tank in question was built in 1929. The water district determined it was in need of replacement in 2014. The water district developed a plan to replace the 1929 storage tank and held two public hearings about its proposal. Village officials participated in these public hearings. The district revised the plan after the public hearings, partly to accommodate concerns of the Village and Village residents elicited at the hearings.

The finalized plan called for the replacement of the 1929 storage tank with a new tank that would hold 250,000 gallons more than the 1929 tank. In addition, an antennae was proposed to be installed on the new tank to facilitate wireless communication between the district facilities, its employees, and volunteer firemen. The water district determined that the proposed construction plan was immune from the Village zoning code, based upon the principles enumerated in Matter of County of Monroe (City of Rochester), 533 NY 2d 702 [1988].

The Village sued. It sought a declaratory judgment and permanent injunction to prevent the demolition of the 1929 tank and construction of the replacement tank, claiming that the 30 foot height restriction contained in the Village zoning code would be violated by this structure. The trial court ruled in favor of the water district, a finding that was affirmed by the Second Department.

The appellate court discussed the City of Monroe case, in which the Court of Appeals dealt with the applicability of a local zoning code where two governmental entities are in conflict over a proposed project. The Court of Appeals set forth a balancing test in that case to determine if there is immunity from the local zoning code for the other governmental entity. These factors include: (1) the nature and scope of the governmental entity seeking immunity from the local zoning code, (2) the type of zoning restriction involved, (3) the extent of the public interest served by the local zoning code, (4) the effect that the local zoning code would have on the other governmental entity, and (5) the impact on local interests.

Using this balancing test, the Second Department determined that the water district was immune from the Village zoning code. The court further noted that the Village failed to set forth any basis for the Village’s contention that the Village had the exclusive right to evaluate the factors and make this immunity determination.

One other note. The water district  also determined that the project was a Type II action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and, thus, not subject to review under SEQRA. This finding was upheld by the trial and appellate courts. The Second Department explained that since the project involved the “replacement, rehabilitation or reconstruction of a structure or facility, in kind,” it was a Type II action under 6 NYCRR § 617.5[c][2], even though it was going to hold 250,000 more gallons than the 1929 tank.

Because of the essential service at issue in this case, the provision of a safe and reliable source of potable water, it is understandable why the courts would favor the water district over a height restriction in a local zoning code.  If the project involved something less vital, the result may have been different.