Measuring the height of a structure may seem straightforward in the abstract, but sometimes in practice that is not the case. Take, for instance, a recent Southampton Town Zoning Board application – Matter of the Application of Hermann – where the height of a house was the subject of a challenge in front of the Zoning Board.

During construction of a residential dwelling, several stop work orders were issued and lifted based upon evidence submitted to the Building Inspector from different surveyors attempting to determine the height of the single family dwelling. Mostly the argument surrounded an interpretation of the term “average natural grade”, which is the point of measurement on the ground in Southampton. This case was complicated by two factors. First, the property was disturbed from the construction of a prior dwelling demolished to make way for the new dwelling. During the demolition the grade was lowered to accommodate a larger basement. Second, there was a ten foot change in slope from one side of the house to the other.

SOUTHAMPTON TOWN ZONING CODE

Southampton Town Zoning Code provides specific guidance for measuring the height of a structure in §330-5 “Definitions” which defines “Height of a Structure”. Section B of that definition states:

“In all other cases, the vertical distance measured from the average natural elevation of the existing natural grade (before any fill has been or is proposed to be placed thereon) as established on a plan prepared by a licensed professional surveyor, at and along the side of the building or structure fronting on the nearest street to the highest point of the highest roof or, in the case of a structure, to the highest point. On all flag lots and lots utilizing a right-of-way, the flagpole access or right-of-way shall be considered the street front.” (Emphasis added)

So, the challenge to the property owner was twofold:

  1. Determine a reasonable methodology to establish “average natural grade” on a previously disturbed lot; and
  2. Apply that methodology to a property that contained a significant slope.

PRIOR ZONING BOARD DECISIONS

Fortunately, the Zoning Board had decided two previous cases involving height variances that centered on determining average natural grade. In the Matter of the Application of Schwartz, the Board initially observed that determining the average natural grade of a parcel of property was an inexact science. Next, the Board determined that using spot elevation data and the Topographic Map of the Five Eastern Towns was a reasonable methodology in determining average natural grade. Finally, the Board determined that a single measurement or data point along a building line was insufficient and that at least two data points must be used to determine average natural grade which would then be the basis on which to measure height.

Approximately a year and a half later, the Zoning Board decided a similar application, the Matter of the Application of Rubin. In Rubin, the Board followed Schwartz by making these findings:

  • Measuring contours and topography is an inexact science.
  • Site specific topographical data is the most accurate piece of information necessary to determine average natural grade.
  • Interpolation of data derived from survey maps and site-specific topographical data is a reasonable way to determine grade issues.

STANDARD

Applying the findings in Schwartz and Rubin, site-specific elevation data combined with the most recent contour mapping available will allow a licensed surveyor to determine contour lines and use these contour lines to determine height.

APPLICATION TO HERMANN

The property owner in Hermann engaged a surveyor who used the following data to determine average natural grade:

  • 1956 Topographical Map prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard
  • 1973 Photographs of Original Foundation under Construction
  • 1974 Five Eastern Towns Topographical Map
  • Actual field data
  • 2007 LiDAR Contour Map
  • 2012 LiDAR Contour Map
  • Field Observation of Surrounding Topography of adjacent lot
  • 2015 Under Construction Photographs of the Current Foundation
  • Actual Height Measurement

Using that information, the surveyor made a determination that the house exceeded the permitted height, and the property owner had to obtain a variance. The request for relief was significantly less than that alleged by the neighbor, and the variance request was ultimately granted. In the Hermann decision, the Board found that the methodology used by the property owner’s surveyor to be the most meaningful and likely accurate because it incorporated the above data.

CONCLUSION

To determine the height of a building – at least in Southampton – a surveyor must consider all of the data available, especially when the property is already disturbed. It is also suggested that a property owner or surveyor provide the Building Inspector with the methodology used to determine average natural grade in advance of construction, so violations of height restriction are avoided.

My partner, Anthony Guardino, recently posted a three-part series about land use fees on this blog. This post concerns a decision by the Appellate Division upholding a $776,307 “Park Fee” imposed by the Village of Westhampton Beach in connection with the development of a 6.59 acre tract of land.

Westhampton Beach Associates, LLC v Incorporated Village of Westhampton Beach, 151 AD3d 793 [2d Dept 2017] involves a 39-unit condominium development. The Village Planning Board approved the site plan in 2008 on the condition that the developer pay a recreation or park fee (“Park Fee”) to be set by the Village Board of Trustees pursuant to Village Law § 7-725-a(6) and § 197-63(Q)(2) of the Village Code. The Park Fee was imposed because the reserved area required by the Village Code could not be located within the site plan. The Village determined that 63,684 square feet of reserved area was otherwise required based on the site plan.

The Village Code contains a formula to calculate the Park Fee based on the fair market value of the land at the time of the application, the total area shown on the site plan in square feet, 2,178 square feet of reserved area per dwelling unit and the number of dwelling units.   Using the formula, in 2011, the Village calculated the Park Fee to be $776,307.

The developer sold the parcel to a third-party in 2012 before the developer paid the Park Fee. The deal included a provision that the purchase price was reduced by the amount of the Park Fee that the purchaser would pay to the Village. It also provided that if any portion of the Park Fee was waived by the Village or was disallowed for any reason, the buyer would pay that amount to the developer. Two years later, the developer sued the Village, contending that the Park Fee was unconstitutionally vague, as a way to recoup that money from the purchaser.

The Appellate Division first discussed two defenses raised by the Village – standing and statute of limitations. The Court ruled in favor of the developer on these impediments. The Court held that even though the developer sold the parcel before it paid the Park Fee, it still had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Park Fee. The Court reasoned that the Park Fee was applied to the parcel at the time the developer owned the site and the subsequent sale and price reduction was an actual harm to the developer.   The Court then determined that the claim was not time-barred, as it was not subject to the four-mouth statute of limitations for Article 78 proceedings, since that type of proceeding could not be used to challenge the constitutionality of a Village code provision. Rather, it was governed by the six-year statute of limitations.

Unfortunately for the developer, the Court then ruled against the developer on the merits, finding that the Village Code provision was not constitutionally vague. Thus, the developer is unable to recoup the amount of the reduction in the purchase price attributable to the Park Fee, and the Village is able to continue imposing this significant fee on other applicants.

As outlined in our prior blog by Anthony S. Guardino, posted on March 20, 2017 entitled, “East Hampton Considers New Laws Mandating Nitrogen-Reducing Sanitary Systems and Offering Rebates to Replace Existing Systems”, similar to the Towns of East Hampton and Brookhaven,  the Town of Southampton adopted a local law on July 25, 2017 requiring advanced nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems starting September 1, 2017.

The Town will require an Innovative and Alternative On-Site Wastewater Treatment System (“I/A OWTS”) for (i) all new residential construction; (ii) any substantial septic upgrades required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; and (iii) any increase of 25% or more in the floor area of a building for those projects located in the “High Priority Area” as defined by the Community Preservation Water Quality Improvement Plan Project (“CP WQIPP”). In addition, an I/A OWTS shall be required for any new septic system or a substantial septic system upgrade required by the Conservation Board or Environment Division pursuant to Town Code Chapter 325, Wetlands.

The I/A OWTS is defined in the Town Code as “an onsite decentralized wastewater treatment system that, at a minimum, is designed to result in total nitrogen in treated effluent of 19 mg/l or less, as approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.”

Southampton is also offering a rebate program through its Community Preservation Fund for systems within the Medium and High Priority Areas of the CP WQIPP with the following qualifying limits: (i) if you earn less than $300,000 /year, up to 100% of the cost to a maximum of $15,000 is available and (ii) if you earn between $300,001 – $500,000/year, up to 50% of the cost to a maximum of $15,000 is available.

Prior to implementing the updated septic requirements, the Town of Southampton studied the need for such systems and drafted the Community Preservation Water Quality Preservation Plan Project. The CP WQIPP thoroughly identifies and reviews the need for the required sanitary upgrades, finds consistency with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and outlines how the Town characterized the high and medium priority properties that are now required to comply with the law.

Specifically, the CP WQIPP states:“The WQIPP presented herein is designed to complement the 2015 Town of Southampton CPF Project Plan, by markedly advancing efforts to foster aquatic habitat and watershed restoration, promote flushing in our bays and tidal systems, abate non-point source pollution and runoff, reduce sewage discharges and nitrogen inputs, and reverse or stem other activities threatening our coastal resources and drinking water aquifers.”

The Town of Southampton has preliminarily mapped priority areas for the purpose of this plan, based on the following criteria:

  •  Locations with no public water (well water);
  • Older communities, where many of the homes are likely to have cesspools instead of septic systems;
  • Homes that are built on small lots (less than half-acre);
  • Sites that have shallow depths to groundwater (e.g. less than 10 feet);
  • Sites that may be temporarily under threat of flooding or storm surge (FEMA Flood zones, SLOSH7 zones);
  • Soils that may be too porous or too impermeable for proper treatment of wastewater;
  • Areas where groundwater reaches surface water bodies relatively quickly;
  •  Nearby water bodies listed as TMDL impaired or the site of restoration efforts.

Parcels in each hamlet that meet one or more of these criteria are delineated on the maps as high or medium priority as follows:

High Priority: A combination of the parameters described above (SLOSH, FEMA, TMDL, Size, etc.) and 0-2 year groundwater to surface water travel times.

Medium Priority: 0-10 year groundwater to surface water travel times excluding the areas in the High Priority above.

The CP WQIPP also includes maps of the entire Town delineating the High Priority Areas (all waterfront/coastal properties in the Town) and Medium Priority Areas. Although these low nitrogen systems require ongoing monitoring and maintenance, the Southampton law does not require ongoing inspections by the Town.  The Town of Southampton has set up a helpful website where property owners can look up their specific property to determine if they are located in a High or Medium Priority area.  Notably, the Town of East Hampton adopted its local law requiring nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems on August 8, 2017, however, the portion of the law requiring the new, nitrogen-reducing sanitary system does not take effect until January 1, 2018.

 

After Hurricane Sandy devastated Long Beach and its boardwalk in 2012, officials sought to reconstruct the city’s iconic esplanade. As part of the rebuild, the Long Beach City Council determined to award contracts for the construction of comfort stations along the wooden promenade, including a comfort station at Lincoln Boulevard which would be installed as a “bump-out,” extending northwardly approximately 23 feet from the boardwalk into the street’s dead-end. However, boardwalk residents living in the adjacent condominium complex were dissatisfied with the proposal and opposed construction. Their opposition culminated in the Article 78 litigation captioned Shapiro v. Torres__ A.D.3d __, Docket No. 2015-09420 (2d Dep’t 2017).

The condominium residents, as Plaintiffs-Petitioners, commenced a hybrid proceeding/action seeking review of the Council’s March 2015 determination and a judgment declaring construction of the comfort stations is a prohibited use of a public street, together with related injunctive relief. In their lawsuit, Petitioners-Plaintiffs alleged the Council violated the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and the Long Beach City Charter and that the comfort station at Lincoln Boulevard would interfere with their easement of light, air and access.

The Supreme Court, Nassau County, denied Plaintiffs-Petitioners’ motion for a preliminary injunction, effectively determined that the construction of the structure is not a prohibited use of a public street, denied the petition and dismissed the hybrid proceeding/action. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed and modified. In its decision, the Second Department analyzed two distinct issues: (1) whether the Petitioners-Plaintiffs had standing to proffer their SEQRA challenge and (2) whether the construction of the comfort station was a permissible use of Lincoln Boulevard.

With respect to SEQRA standing, the Second Department reasoned that the alleged environmental injuries were too “speculative and conjectural to demonstrate an actual and specific injury-in-fact.” The Petitioners-Plaintiffs failed to show an environmental injury different from that of the public at-large and that the alleged injury fell within the zone of interests protected by SEQRA. The Court noted “[c]lose proximity alone is insufficient to confer standing where there are no zoning issues involved, and general environmental concerns will not suffice.” Moreover, a party must also demonstrate it will suffer an injury that is environmental and not solely economic in nature.

With respect to the permissible use of Lincoln Boulevard, the Court treated this issue vis-à-vis Petitioners-Plaintiffs’ claims of an interference with their easement of light, air and access.   An owner of land abutting a highway or street has such an easement incident to ownership; however, when fee title of the roadway is transferred to the State, the State may use the roadway for any public purpose not inconsistent with or prejudicial to its use as a roadway. The mere disturbance of light, air and access to abutting owners by imposition of a new use consistent with roadway purposes must be tolerated and does not necessarily create a cause of action for interference with use and enjoyment of the premises.

At the Lincoln Boulevard site, the comfort station “bump-out” will not completely block Petitioners-Plaintiffs ocean view, will not prevent use of the public street, will not substantially affect the turn-around area in the dead-end and does not impact access to the condominium complex. The mere fact that the construction area is proximate to the Petitioners-Plaintiffs’ condominium complex does not signify that an easement of light, air and access creates a cause of action.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court, with a minor modification to sufficiently address and resolve the declaratory judgment action.

Now more than ever, climate resiliency along our coastlines is an important aspect of long range municipal planning.   Back in 1981, the New York State Legislature enacted the Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act, N.Y. Exec. Law § 910. (the “NYS Coastal and Waterways Act”).

Coastal communities and communities on designated inland waterways are eligible to participate in the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. Coastal communities are communities on the Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, New York Harbor and the waters around New York City, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, Niagara River or the St. Lawrence River; eligible communities on designated inland waterways include communities located on an inland waterbody, such as a major lake, river or the State Canal, or other inland waterway designated by Article 42 of the Executive Law.

Among other things, the NYS Coastal and Waterways Act encourages local governments to participate in the State’s coastal management efforts by submitting local waterfront revitalization programs (“LWRPs”) to the Secretary of the DOS for approval. See N.Y. Exec. Law § 915(1).  Under the Act, any local government, which has any portion of its jurisdiction contiguous to the state’s coastal waters or inland waterways may submit an LWRP to the Secretary of State.  See, NYS Guidebook.  If an LWRP is approved by the Secretary , state agency actions in that municipality must also “be consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the local program.” Id. at § 915(8).

Unfortunately, the Act is silent regarding the relationship between the LWRP and local comprehensive land use plans and zoning.   However, to ensure that local development and waterfront revitalization plans are appropriately integrated into the local land use planning and zoning regulatory framework, many municipalities have incorporated their approved LWRPs into zoning regulations.  As a result, the LWRP policy document may serve as a legal foundation for zoning changes in part, due to their incorporation into the comprehensive plan.  By doing so, municipalities are able to effectively provide implementation mechanisms that support the principles and goals delineated in the waterfront plan through the use of their zoning powers.  See generally, Bonnie Briar Syndicate, Inc. v. Town of Mamaroneck, 94 N.Y.2d 96, (1999), 

The Department of State’s Division of Local Government provides training assistance to municipalities relating to zoning procedures in addition to other practical legal and technical advise.   See, www.dos.state.ny.us/lgss.

 

On July 11, 2016, we authored Part One in an ongoing series discussing the mechanics of  how to successfully record a deed in the State of New York, wherein we discussed the various types of ownership interests and how they should be correctly reflected.

On August 22, 2016, we authored Part Two in the series discussing how to successfully prepare and record a deed in the State of New York, wherein we discussed no consideration deed transfers and the importance of starting every transaction by securing a copy of the recorded deed from the County Clerk’s Office, not from your client or anyone else.

Today, we offer Part Three in the series – – 10 Fail-Safe Tips To Achieve Success:

Before we begin, although some of the tips below may seem rudimentary, rest assured I spend quite a bit of time providing answers to these questions:

  1. Ensure that you identify all buyers’ and sellers’ physical addresses.  PO Boxes are not acceptable, as you cannot reside in a box.  If you don’t know the physical address, write the street name of the property being transferred and indicate there is no number assigned to the property,  such as “No # Main Street, Islip” for a property being transferred in the Town of Islip.  Deed physical addresses are not used for billing purposes or tax billing purposes.  This is more a form over substance arcane requirement.
  2. Deeds are only signed by sellers, unless the buyer is assuming a mortgage.  As such, if you have two sellers and one buyer who is assuming a mortgage, than all parties must sign; and all signatures must be notarized.
  3. If the seller is a corporation, partnership, LLC or other type of business entity, the seller’s official capacity must be disclosed – i.e Jane Smith, managing member, or Jane Smith, President.
  4. If the notary public is related to any party, but not a party or beneficiary of the transaction, best practices would suggest that you find another notary.  However, mere familial relation to a notary does not, per se, disqualify the notary.  Most practitioners will frown upon this, although it is perfectly acceptable.
  5. There is a little know secret that pursuant to Real Property Law Section 309-a, a notary is not required to actually witness the person signing the deed.  In other words, if Jane Smith signs the deed in front of her friend John Smith, and John Smith (who is not a party to the transaction) tells the notary that he witnessed Jane Smith sign the deed, then the notary may take the signature of Jane Smith.  This is called a Subscribing Witness Form of notarization.  The caveat here is that the notary  must be personally acquainted with the subscribing witness.  In this example, John Smith is the subscribing witness, with whom the notary must be personally acquainted.    Likewise, if a subscribing witness notary signature is taken, a different notary jurat, found under section 309-a, must be used.
  6. Most deeds today state that the consideration for the transfer is “ten dollars and other valuable consideration.”  This is perfectly acceptable, except in the case of an executor’s deed.  Every executor’s deed must state the full and accurate consideration, together with the date of the seller’s death and the county where the death occurred and the will was probated.  If there is no will, the same information applies to an administrative proceeding.
  7. Every deed should contain a recital called a “being and intended to be clause.”  Quite frankly, these clauses have significant meaning.  For instance, if a typographical error occurs in the deed’s legal description, by including a “being and intended to be clause”, in most cases a corrected deed will not be required if the source of the transfer is indicated to be from a prior deed, and the prior deed’s legal description had been correct.  This can have a serious cost saving effect, given the exorbitant filing fees charged by Nassau and Suffolk Counties these days.
  8. Although I have been guilty of this faux pas myself, always sign deed documents in black ink.
  9. Even though most deed forms request a witness signature next to the signer’s (grantor’s) name, such as “in the presence of” or “witness here”, no such witness signature is required.
  10. Just as there is a subscribing witness notary jurat, there is also an out-of-state notary jurat.  Ensure that if you are sending a deed out of state to be signed that an out-of-state notary jurat is included on the deed.

I hope this list of seemingly easy to remember tips is helpful for lawyers and paralegals alike.  Stay tuned for an in-depth review of how to properly complete those all-encompassing transfer documents, such as the New York State TP-584 form, RP-5217 form, Community Preservation Tax Form and some interesting affidavits for mortgage tax reductions, such as the 253 Affidavit and 255 Affidavit.

 

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.

 

Petitioners, residents and nearby occupants (“Petitioners”), commenced a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action against the Planning Board of the Village of Tuckahoe (“Board”) and others in Murphy v. Planning Board of Tuckahoe (Sup. Ct. Westchester County 2017), to annul a negative declaration issued by the Board. The Board initially issued a conditional negative declaration (“CND“) for a project to construct a hotel, restaurant and parking lot (“Project”) at a former marble quarry and dump site (“Site”). Petitioners filed suit after the Board amended its CND to a negative declaration.

The Site had been a quarry from the late 1800s until the 1930s, after which private entities and municipalities used the Site for dumping. In 2014, the project’s developer, Bilwin Development Affiliates, LLC (“Developer”), conducted environmental testing which revealed concentrations of volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds and inorganic compounds at the Site. The Developer applied for admission into the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program (“BCP”), which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) accepted. During plan preparation for the BCP, the Developer submitted an application to the Board for site plan approval for the Project; and the Board declared itself lead agency for SEQRA review.

In July 2015, after its review, the Board issued a draft conditional negative declaration (“CND”) with time for notice and comment. The Board ultimately adopted the CND in September 2015, categorizing the Project as an unlisted action with the condition that the Developer meet all DEC and Department of Health requirements.

Before and after issuance of the CND, the Developer – in conjunction with the DEC and the Board – performed additional Site investigations and prepared plans for remediation and containment. The final plans for the Project included remediation specifications for the contaminated soil, a community air monitoring plan and construction of a hotel and parking lot as a Site cap. The DEC determined that the remediation plan would eliminate or mitigate all significant threats to public health and the environment presented by contamination.

In October 2016, after a number of public meetings and comments, the Board amended the CND to a negative declaration based upon the DEC’s determination, the remediation plans and other documents in the record. This amendment occurred over a year after the issuance of the draft CND (July 2015). Petitioners sued to annul this decision claiming, among other things, that: (1) SEQRA regulations do not allow the amendment or rescission of a CND unless the lead agency later determines a positive declaration is appropriate; and, (2) the lead agency failed to take a “hard look” at evaluating the environmental impact of the methods to be used in removing contaminated soil and monitoring contaminants. Petitioners also challenged the issuance of the CND.

First, although SEQRA regulations require rescission of a negative declaration or CND if new substantive information or changes cause the lead agency to determine a significant adverse environmental impact may result, the regulations do not prohibit amendments to a CND that remove conditions. 6 NYCRR § 617.7(d)(2), (f)(1). Moreover, SEQRA regulations permit a lead agency, at its discretion, to amend a negative declaration (a CND is a type of negative declaration) at any time prior to the decision to approve an action. 6 NYCRR § 617.7(e). Therefore, the Board was allowed to amend or rescind the CND.

Second, with respect to excavating the contaminants, Petitioners argued that the proposed methods to remediate and monitor were unsafe. Notably, Petitioners did not argue that the proposed methods would have an adverse environmental impact. Petitioners cited their experts’ methods and opinions, which the Board already reviewed during the comment period. The Court held that, at best, Petitioners merely indicated a disagreement between Petitioners’ experts and the Board as to the preferred methods to remediate and monitor – which is not grounds to overturn the Board’s decision to issue the negative declaration.

Lastly, the Court held that Petitioners’ challenge to the underlying CND was untimely. The draft CND was published on July 21, 2015, the period of limitations began to run thirty (30) days later on August 20, 2015, and expired four (4) months later on December 20, 2015. Petitioners could not attack the underlying CND eleven (11) months past the period of limitations by virtue of seeking to annul a later amendment to that CND.

Based upon the foregoing, and other reasons, the Court dismissed these challenges.

On July 7, 2017, Judge William G. Ford issued a decision in the case Matter of 7-Eleven, Inc. v. Town of Babylon, Supreme Court, Suffolk County, 2017 NY Slip Op 31467(U) , in which the Town was excoriated for its mishandling of a site plan approval and building permit application. Although the applicant prevailed in court, it took five years to get there, during which the site remained vacant and unproductive. Here’s how it unfolded.

The Facts

In July 2012, 7-Eleven applied for a building permit and certificate of occupancy for a site in Wyandanch. The property contained a defunct automobile repair shop, garage and canopies for an abandoned gasoline service station. 7-Eleven proposed to tear down this eyesore and improve it with a 24-hour 7-Eleven store, a use it contended was as-of-right. The Town, however, had other ideas. The Town’s Building Division initially provided comments in July 2012, which were followed by comments from other Town divisions, including traffic safety, engineering, the fire marshal, environmental control, highways and planning that were issued from July to October 2012.

The Town’s Traffic Division issued comments in October 2012 in which it objected to the project on the grounds that there was insufficient on-site customer truck parking, an inadequate truck loading zone, and inadequate setbacks for trash enclosure and mechanical equipment, which it claimed were too close to residential dwellings. It also raised concerns about an existing 7-Eleven, located within ½ mile of the project. It had issues about ingress and egress that it believed would cause increased traffic and parking on nearby residential streets.

7-Eleven responded to these various comments in February 2013, when it submitted architectural drawings and a revised site plan as well as comments prepared by its expert engineering consultant. This submittal addressed the issues raised by the Town Traffic Division. 7-Eleven included three customer truck parking spaces and a dedicated delivery truck loading zone. 7-Eleven proposed to limit all deliveries to box trucks and modified the trash enclosure and loading zone to decrease noise and lessen visual impacts.

The Town responded with further comments which were provided to 7-Eleven in December 2013.   In particular, the Town’s Traffic Division objected to the revised site plan.

The Town Planning Board then held a public hearing at which further revisions to the site plan were requested. These revisions concerned traffic flow and several covenants and restrictions that would (1) prohibit tractor trailer truck deliveries, (2) limit delivery hours, (3) prohibit truck parking on residential streets, (4) limit hours of operation, and (5) require a security protocol. 7-Eleven agreed to all the covenants and restrictions except it would not agree to limit the hours of operation. The public hearing was left open for the receipt of a traffic study. That study determined that vehicle traffic would be relegated to the major thoroughfare (Straight Path) and would not have a major impact on pedestrian or bus stop safety.

The general public also weighed in on the proposal, via written comments, petitions and letters, objecting to the project.  These opponents were concerned with increased traffic and crime and decreased residential property values and public safety. The operator of the other 7-Eleven, located ½ mile away, also submitted comments, which the court noted “would later loom large” in the Town’s subsequent handling of the application. This operator contended that siting the store so close to his existing store would oversaturate the market and lead to increased competition. He also noted that his donation of surplus food to local charities would decrease and also questioned enforcement of the tractor trailer prohibition.

Although 7-Eleven objected, the public record was held open. During this extended comment period, the Town’s Traffic Division raised concerns about truck parking and traffic. It announced in February 2014 that it would not take any further action to review the application unless and until 7-Eleven undertook further site plan revisions to address its concerns.

In response, 7-Eleven made additional revisions to its site plan. These were shared with the Traffic Division in April 2014 and formally filed with the Town in May 2014. Among other things, 7-Eleven confirmed its commitment to limit deliveries to box trucks, and modified its customer parking and loading zone. It also closed off access from certain streets and proposed to install fencing that would reduce vehicle headlights shining into residential areas. It relocated the trash enclosure and mechanical equipment further away from residential neighbors and eliminated a pedestrian walkway near a residential street.

In July 2014, the Town Traffic Division issued another memo, this time finding fault with the dedicated customer truck parking stall.

7-Eleven filed its final site plan in May 2015.   It also filed engineered drawings,traffic and planning studies, and an appraisal, all dated in April 2015. 7-Eleven also filed an affidavit from its senior regional director and requested that the hearing be finally closed. The affidavit rebutted the comments of the operator of the other 7-Eleven.   It also submitted an affidavit from its engineer in which it contended that its proposed use was superior to seven other similarly-situated commercial uses approved by the Town in the preceding two years.

In September 2015, the Planning Board held a meeting and adjourned the applications. Thereafter, in February 2016, additional comments were issued by the Town’s Traffic Division in which it noted its agreement with the operator of the other 7-Eleven and rejected the opinion of 7-Eleven’s regional director about truck traffic, parking and impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhood. But that was not the end of the Town’s Traffic Division’s comments. Two months later, in April 2016, the Town’s Traffic Division issued a memo to the effect that the proposed covenants and restrictions were insufficient. As a result, the Town requested that 7-Eleven submit yet another revised site plan.

At this point, 7-Eleven had had it; and in June 2016, it sent a demand letter to the Town calling for an up or down determination on its application. In August 2016, the Planning Board denied the application. The rationale given for the denial was the safety of the residential neighborhoods that abutted the site on two sides, the adverse impact on traffic and parking, and public safety concerns.

Not surprisingly, 7-Eleven sued.

The Lawsuit

The Town claimed its decision should be upheld by the Court on the grounds it was rational and based on substantial evidence. The Town also contended its decision was not final, contending that 7-Eleven’s lawsuit was not ripe because it failed to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for variance relief. The Court didn’t buy these arguments.

The Court first discussed the ripeness issue. It noted that a land use and zoning matter is final when the “development plan has been submitted, considered and rejected by the governmental entity with the power to implement zoning regulations” but that an applicant “will be excused from obtaining a final decision if pursuing an appeal to a zoning board of appeals or seeking a variance would be futile.” Thus, resort to a zoning board of appeals is unnecessary if it “lacks discretion to grant variances or dug in its heels and made clear that all such applications will be denied.” The Court noted that 7-Eleven sought site plan review and a building permit to demolish existing structures and to construct a new building. Neither was granted by the Town, essentially stymying the project. Moreover, since the application was as-of-right, and the setbacks the Town claimed were applicable did not apply to this corner lot, there is no variance that it needed from the Town Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Court then took aim at the Town’s discretion argument. In rejecting it, the Court noted that the Town gave into public pressure about traffic, crime and property values plummeting. The Court found that the Town improperly ignored the concessions made by 7-Eleven to ameliorate the supposed impacts. It also focused on the multiple revisions and the lack of evidence in the record supporting the Town’s decision.

Conclusion

7-Eleven has the financial wherewithal to see a project through, despite the years it takes to get it approved on Long Island. Other applicants may not have the ability to withstand such an extended and expensive proposition to open a business, redevelop a blighted site and revitalize a neighborhood.

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.