An application was made for a site plan to the Planning Board of the City of Poughkeepsie for a 24 two-bedroom unit condominium complex in four buildings on a 3.4 acre parcel adjacent to an historic district.   The site had existing mature trees on the perimeter of the property, some of which were proposed to be cut down and replaced with new trees.   On April 19, 2011, the City of Poughkeepsie Planning Board issued a negative declaration pursuant to the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”). The Historic Southside Neighborhood Association appealed the determination in an Article 78 Proceeding to the Dutchess County Supreme Court seeking an order annulling the negative declaration and directing the Planning Board to issue a positive declaration and proceed with an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). See Jeanette Peterson as President of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Assn. v. Planning Board of the City of Poughkeepsie et al., Index No. 3511/2011, September 2, 2015.

The Supreme Court stated the standard in reviewing the negative declaration issued by the Planning Board was limited to “whether the agency identified the relevant areas of environmental concerns took a hard look at them, and made a reasonable elaboration of the grounds for its determination.” The Supreme Court found that the Planning Board took the requisite “hard look” at the potential impacts of the proposed project on the bordering historic district during a 20 month review period. The Court found that the Planning Board’s reliance on the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (“OPRHP”) which issued three letters concluding that it did not perceive any substantial impact to the neighboring historic district was reasonable. The Supreme Court upheld the negative declaration and dismissed the proceeding. The Historic Southside Neighborhood Association appealed the matter to the Appellate Division.

In its decision dated July 5, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in the Matter of Jeannette Peterson, etc., v. Planning Board of the City of Poughkeepsie, et al., 2018 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05049, reversed the Supreme Courts determination. Regarding the impact to the historic district the Appellate Division found the Planning Board’s reliance on the OPRHP insufficient stating that the Planning Board “merely relied upon a letter from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreations and Historic Preservation, which stated only that the proposed action would not have an adverse impact on the historic district. Such a conclusory statement fails to fulfill the reasoned elaboration requirement of SEQRA.”

Additionally, the Court reviewed the Planning Board’s determination regarding the potential impacts to vegetation or fauna cited in the negative declaration which stated that the proposed action would not result in the “removal or destruction of large quantities of vegetation or fauna.” However, the Environmental Assessment Form relied upon by the Planning Board noted the reduction of the 3.4 acre parcel’s forestation from 2.75 acres to 0.3 acres. The Court stated, “[i]n the context of this project, the level of deforestation is significant.”

Therefore, the Appellate Division found that the proposed action may have significant adverse environmental impacts upon one or more areas of environmental concern and determined that the Planning Board’s negative declaration was arbitrary and capricious. The matter was remitted to the Planning Board for the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.

It is not uncommon for municipal planning departments to require applicants who are seeking land use approvals involving multiple contiguous parcels to consolidate or merge the properties to form one single larger parcel. Consolidation or merger typically results in a new tax map number, a new single tax bill for the consolidated or merged lots, assurances to the municipality that the otherwise single unconsolidated or non-merged lots will not be individually sold off post land use approvals and that the proposed project which is subject to the land use approvals will be assessed for real property tax purposes as one single improved unit (versus partially improved and partially vacant land).

Consolidation or merger of single parcels into one larger parcel provides for certainty when it comes to ownership of the lands subject to the approvals and provides the municipal assessing unit with certainty as to the use of the lands while imposing a single tax class and assessed value to the overall project.  Consolidation or merger is most often required prior to issuance of a building permit or Certificate of Occupancy.  Consolidation can be set forth as a covenant or condition in a written and signed Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions, which is recorded against the property in the applicable County Clerk’s or County Registers Office.  Similar to any other covenant or restriction, failure to comply with the covenant or restriction to consolidate can result in revocation of the relevant land use approvals.

In a recent Second Department case involving a real property tax assessment dispute, failure by the property owner to consolidate or merge six individual parcels that form the boundaries of a shopping center gave rise to unequal tax assessments among the six parcels, resulting in the exact problem that municipalities try to avoid by requiring consolidation or merger.

In re Blauvelt Mini-Mall, Inc v. Town of Orangetown, as a condition of site plan approval granted in 1992, the Town required that six individually owned parcels be merged into one single parcel forming the boundaries of a proposed shopping center.  Despite the condition, no formal steps were ever taken to effectuate the merger.   The facts of the case do not indicate whether the merger requirement was reduced to a recorded Declaration of Covenants and Restriction with revocation language.

Over the years, although a formal merger was never accomplished, the Town assessed the shopping center as one real property taxable unit by undervaluing five of the parcels while overvaluing the sixth parcel.  This valuation strategy lead to the unequal tax assessments that consolidation or merger seeks to avoid.   What is interesting about this case from a land use perspective is the fact that despite the 1992 Town directive to consolidate or merge the lots, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court holding that directed the merger by stating that  “[n]one of the parties sought merger of the parcels or similar relief, merger of all the parcels at issue into one tax lot is not supported by the record, and merger of all the parcels could be potentially prejudicial to the petitioner.”

Hence, despite all outward appearances by the property owner to use the unconsolidated parcels as one consolidated improved shopping center parcel, failure to take the necessary steps to consolidate, such as transferring all six parcels into one deed, providing one overall property description or metes and bounds instead of six individual metes and bounds, and modifying the official tax maps to reflect one single parcel, the petitioner in this case could potentially benefit from the unequal tax assessments to the detriment of the municipality.  Likewise, even though the Town conditioned site plan approval on consolidation or merger of the lots, failure by the municipality to insure that consolidation actually occurred seems to have resulted in a waiver or estoppel against the municipality, which is not typically applicable to municipalities.

Author note: Although the facts of this case do not indicate the basis for under valuation of five parcels and over valuation of the sixth parcel, it would likely be reasonable that the five undervalued parcels are perhaps being assessed as vacant land containing only parking areas, or open space, while the sixth parcel houses the actual shopping center structure.  If this is the case, petitioner could easily argue that parcels one to five should receive a lower vacant land assessment, while only parcel six should receive a full commercial improved real property assessment.  Allowing this fact pattern to exist provides for uncertainty in tax assessments.

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 2009, Scenic Development, LLC (“Scenic”) sought a zone change for the property formerly known as the “Patrick Farm” located in the Town of Ramapo to permit the development of multi-family housing. In three determinations adopted January 25, 2010, the Town Board resolved to (i) approve a findings statement pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) for the proposed zone change, (ii) amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow for the zone change, and (iii) approve the zone change. The Town’s determinations have led to a series of cases challenging these decisions, with three recent decisions discussed below.

Scenic purchased the property in 2001.  The underlying zoning of the property was R-80 when Scenic purchased the property and was subsequently changed to R-40, or one house per 40,000 square feet, when the Town adopted its 2004 Comprehensive Plan. In 2009, when it sought the zone change, Scenic proposed to build 479 housing units on 197 acres of the former farm along the Route 202/306 corridor outside Pomona. Therefore, the zone change would have dramatically increased the density permitted on the property.

Although the project still has not come to fruition, with some additional environmental review as discussed below, the project may still be viable.

Youngewirth v. Town Board of Ramapo

In Matter of Youngewirth v. Town of Ramapo Town Board et al., decided November 8, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the Supreme Court’s, May 8, 2013 determination which denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. The appellate court annulled the determinations of the Town Board and remitted the matter back to the Town Board for further proceedings consistent with the decision. Specifically, the Court found that the Town Board did not take the requisite “hard look” pursuant to SEQRA because of its (i) failure to review the environmental impact of the proposed development in close proximity to the existing Columbia Natural Gas Pipeline, (ii) failure to consider the combined impact of the development and pipeline on the environment, (iii) failure to list Columbia Gas as an “interested agency” pursuant to SEQRA, and (iv) failure to make a “reasoned elaboration” for the basis of its determination regarding this issue by not mentioning the potential impacts in its FEIS or findings statement.

The Court, however, sided with the Town on petitioner’s claim that the zone change was in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan and found that petitioner failed to establish a clear conflict with the Comprehensive Plan. The Court also found that petitioner failed to establish that the zone change constituted impermissible spot zoning. The Court further noted that requiring a certain number of affordable housing units was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and was a reasonable condition related to and incidental to the property. However, because the Court found that the approval for the findings statement pursuant to SEQRA was required prior to amending the Comprehensive Plan or granting the proposed zone change, the annulment of the resolution approving the SEQRA findings statement required the annulment of the determinations regarding the Comprehensive Plan and proposed zone change.   Ultimately, the Court remitted the matter back to the Town Board for preparation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“SEIS”) to consider the issues related to the gas pipeline.

Shapiro v. Ramapo Planning Board

In the related case of Matter of Shapiro v. Planning Board of Town of Ramapo et al., decided November 8, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department likewise annulled the Supreme Court’s determinations and remitted the matter back to the Planning Board for further review consistent with its decision.  The Planning Board approved Scenic’s three separate applications for final subdivision and site plan approval of three housing projects as part of Scenic’s proposed development of the property.  Here, petitioner alleged that a SEIS was required in connection with the SEQRA review conducted for the proposed development because the applicant, Scenic, failed to obtain a jurisdictional determination from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (“ACOE”) validating the delineation of wetlands on the property. The Court outlined that a lead agency’s determination whether to require an SEIS is discretionary. Specifically, SEQRA in section 6 NYCRR 617.9(a)(7(ii) provides, “the lead agency may require a supplemental EIS limited to the specific adverse environmental impacts not addressed or inadequately addressed in the EIS that arise from (a) changes proposed for the project, (b) newly discovered information, or (c) a change in circumstances related to the project”. Here, petitioners alleged that the Planning Board failed to consider newly discovered information having received a letter indicating that the ACOE reviewed the development plans but not the wetlands delineation. The applicant was required to obtain the ACOE’s jurisdictional wetlands delineation and the Planning Board was required to rely on the ACOE’s federal wetland delineation since wetlands were excluded in part from the yield calculations related to the proposed development. Thus the Court found that the Planning Board failed to take the requisite hard look pursuant to SEQRA and remitted the matter back to the Board for the preparation of an SEIS regarding the presence of wetlands on the property.

Village of Pomona v. Town of Ramapo

The neighboring Village of Pomona also sued the Town Board and Planning Board of Ramapo in two separate actions in which the Supreme Court denied the petitions and dismissed the proceedings. On November 8, 2017, The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed these determinations related to the Scenic proposal as well in Village of Pomona v. Town of Ramapo et al. Here, although the Court found that the Town of Ramapo adequately considered the effect of the proposed development on community character and complied with General Municipal Law §239-m(3) by providing a point-by-point response to the Village’s comments on the application, the Court determined that the lower court should have granted the Village’s petition based on the reasons stated in the Youngewirth decision referenced above.

In all, there have been approximately ten challenges over the years related to the Town of Ramapo’s approvals of Scenic’s proposed development. Although the local land preservation groups claim the recent court decisions as a total win, the Appellate Division made significant findings in support of the Town of Ramapo’s review and reversed the Supreme Court’s determinations on very specific grounds, which, if addressed correctly by the Town, could result in the multi-family development being built.

 

 

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.

childrightslogoenSometimes called a “case of the race,” the common law doctrine of vested rights is “one of the most troublesome areas of land use regulation.”  Exeter Building Corp v Town of Newburgh, 114 AD3d 774 [2d Dept 2014].

In New York, the “vested rights” doctrine is equitable in nature and implicated when a property owner or developer seeks to continue the use of property in a way that was permissible before an  enactment or amendment of zoning regulations no longer permits it.   Town of Orangetown v. Magee, 88 NY2d 41 [1996].

Generally, an owner of real property can acquire common-law vested rights to develop property in accordance with the prior zoning regulations when (1) in reliance on a legally issued permit, the landowner (2) effects substantial changes and incurs substantial expenses to further the development and (3) the landowner’s actions relying on the valid permit(s) are so substantial that the municipal action results in serious loss rendering the improvements essentially valueless.  Id.  As a result, the “race” becomes whether the developer gets the project completed or at least substantially completed to satisfy the Magee test before the municipality get its zoning code in place.

Recently, in Exeter Building Corp v. Town of Newburgh, the Court of Appeals affirmed a determination by the Appellate Division holding that the developer had not vested a plan to build 136 townhouse units, because it could not have reasonably relied on valid permits when warned repeatedly of a rezoning by the Planning Board.  In Exeter, the Court of Appeals refined the reliance test in Magee, holding that is was not “reasonablefor the developer  to rely on a conditional  site  plan approval placing emphasis on the Town Planning Board’s repeated warnings of the proposed rezoning.

Now, not only must developers listen for the starting gun in a vested rights case, but they must also consider the reasonableness of a municipality’s warning. Such an additional qualifier seems to give the government a head start.

For a detailed discussion of vested rights and the underlying Appellate Division case, see one of our earlier blog posts, Appellate Court Rules on Common-Law Vested Rights.

 

mosqueOn December 31, 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp of the District of New Jersey authored a 57-page opinion granting partial summary judgment to plaintiffs, The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (“Islamic Society”) holding that defendants, the Township of Bernards (“Bernards”), violated Islamic Society’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).  The Bernards Planning Board denied Islamic Society’s site plan application seeking to construct a mosque in a residential zone on the basis that (1) a mosque is not considered a church under Bernards’ zoning code and (2)  Bernards’ parking ordinance was not adhered to.

FACTS

In November 2011, Islamic Society purchased property in a residential section of Bernards with the intention of constructing a 4,252 square foot mosque on the property.  The site plan called for 50 parking spaces based on estimated occupancy of 150 people.  The parking spaces provided were in compliance with Bernards’ parking ordinance applicable to churches at a ratio of 3:1 .

Over the course of three and a half years, Islamic Society’s site plan application underwent 39 meetings and was subjected to intense neighborhood opposition and scrutiny.    According to the decision, competing expert testimony was provided by parking experts and asserted that although Bernards does not, and has never, relied on the Institute of Transportation Engineers (“ITE”)  Parking Generation data,  Bernards required Islamic Society to apply the ITE data applicable to mosques, which estimated required parking spaces between 36 and 110.  Bernards compromised at 107 parking spaces, when in fact, only 50 were required under Bernards accepted church parking ratio of 3:1.

The rationale for the increased parking requirement rested on Bernards’ determination that a mosque is not a church, despite the fact that Bernards’ zoning code does not state that a mosque is not considered a church.  Bernards did not stop there.  Bernards went on to say that only Christian places of worship are considered  churches, and as a result thereof, not only was the 3:1 parking ratio not applicable to Islamic Society’s site plan application, but also, Bernards maintained discretion in reviewing Islamic Society’s application and essentially had unfettered discretion in determining parking requirements.

At the conclusion of all hearings and testimony, Bernards’ planning board denied the site plan application.  Islamic Society commenced an action in federal court alleging violations under RLUIPA.

DECISION

In granting partial summary judgment, the Court rejected Bernards’ position that mosques are not considered churches.   In fact, the Court specifically stated that a mosque or any place of religious worship, whether a church or not, is protected under RLUIPA.  Bernards’ unsupported determination that mosques are not considered churches violated Islamic Society’s rights under the Nondiscrimination Provision of RLUIPA.

Additionally, with respect to the increased parking, and Bernards’ position that it maintained unfettered discretion to determine parking requirements, the Court relied upon its determination that a mosque is entitled to the same protections as a church;  as such, the Bernard parking ordinance ratio of 3:1 should have been applied equally to Islamic Society as it had historically been applied to Christian and Baptist churches and synagogues that were previously approved in Bernards.  Further, the Christian, Baptist and Jewish places of worship were typically granted in less than six months, and in most instances, with less then four public hearings.

CONCLUSION

The decision in this 57-page case cannot be justly analyzed in a short blog post.  Given the state of our country at this time, when it comes to freedom of religion and the consequences that we suffer as a result of our differing beliefs, it would be a worthwhile allocation of any land use attorney’s time to read this decision.  If nothing else, it reminds us all that one of the basic tenets of our American freedoms is the freedom to be different and be accepted.

We recently came across an interesting decision from a federal appeals court involving a town’s rescission of a 25-year-old negative declaration issued under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).  A “negative declaration” is a written determination by a lead agency that a proposed action will not result in significant adverse environmental impacts. Because of the convoluted history of the matter as it wound its way through both state and federal courts, we think you may find it interesting as well.

In Leonard, et al, v. Planning Board of the Town of Union Vale, __F.3d __ (2d Cir. September 2, 2016), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 2012 rescission of a 1987 negative declaration was not a final determination, requiring the applicant to complete the SEQRA review process before resorting to court.    Here’s the history.

The Planning Board Decision

In 1986, plaintiffs applied to have their 950-acre property, located in the Town of Union Vale in Dutchess County, designated as an “open development area” under Town Law § 280-a(4).  Town of Union ValeThe application was granted by the Town, which permitted the site to be subdivided into private lots with private roads.  In 1987, the Planning Board of the Town of Union Vale (Planning Board) issued a negative declaration with respect to the entire project.   The first section of the project was approved in 1987 and was developed with large single-family homes.  In 2009, plaintiffs applied for a subdivision of the next section.  Changes to the layout required by the Planning Board for this second phase would cause significantly more ground being disturbed than was initially planned.  In 2012, the Planning Board determined that the application was incomplete and decided a new SEQRA review was required because the 1987 negative declaration did not apply to the current application.

Plaintiffs Challenge The Planning Board’s Determination

Plaintiffs sued the Planning Board in state court in 2012, challenging the incompleteness determination. The state trial and appellate courts determined that the 2012 Planning Board incompleteness resolution was improper and annulled it. The courts further ruled that the Planning Board must consider the 2012 application on the basis of the 1987 negative declaration unless the Planning Board determines that the 1987 negative declaration should be amended or rescinded.  The Planning Board held a public hearing in June 2013.  It thereafter adopted a resolution rescinding the 1987 negative declaration on the grounds that the project, and the applicable regulations, had undergone substantial changes since 1987; and the project may result in significant adverse environmental impacts.  According to plaintiffs, no specifics about any such impacts were contained in the resolution.

Not surprisingly, plaintiffs sued again. In 2013, plaintiffs commenced another action in state court, alleging federal due process violations and state law violations. The defendants removed the case to the federal district court, which remanded the state claims back to the state court and dismissed the federal due process claims on the grounds that plaintiffs did not have a property right in the negative declaration. See Leonard et al., v. The Planning Board of the Town of Union Vale, 154 F.Supp.3d 59, 67-68 (SDNY 2016).

Plaintiffs appealed the federal district court’s dismissal of the federal due process claims.  Following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City,  473 US 172 (1985), and the Second Circuit’s prior rulings  in Southview Associates,  Ltd., v. Bongartz, 980 F.2d 84 (2d Cir. 1992) and Kurtz v. Verizon New York, Inc., 758 F.3d 506 (2d Cir. 2014), the Second Circuit ruled that before plaintiffs can bring a federal due process challenge to a local land-use claim, the local agency must render a “final decision.”

The Second Circuit found the negative declaration rescission was not a final decision because plaintiffs’ application was still pending before the Planning Board, and the Town still needed to complete the project’s SEQRA review.  The Second Circuit noted that in rare exceptional cases, the finality requirement can be excused.  This requires a showing that the Planning Board already made up its mind and that further proceedings before the Planning Board were futile or that the board used unfair tactics to delay the approval process.  In this case, the Second Circuit found these futility criteria missing.  It also noted that the mere fact that plaintiffs would incur expenses to go through the SEQRA process was not a basis for finding futility.    See Leonard, et al, v. Planning Board of the Town of Union Vale, __F.3d __ (2d Cir. September 2, 2016).

In October 2015, the state court dismissed the remanded state claims, finding that the Planning Board’s rescission was not arbitrary or capricious and did not violate law. That decision is on appeal to the state appellate court.

The Outcome

Plaintiffs incurred a lot of legal fees and spent more than three years challenging the 2012 rescission in both federal and state courts and wound up back where they started – before the Planning Board going through the SEQRA process.

As New York State land use practitioners and those interested in land use development, we are all well aware of the perils of failing to refer a land use application to the governing county land use commission.  When discussing the referral process with my colleagues and those responsible for  General Municipal Law 239-m referrals, such as town and village zoning and planning boards, their board members and their support staff, the usual response is “We refer everything.”

building permitThis pervasive misunderstanding of what types of land use applications must be referred, and when they must be referred, leads not only to delays in processing applications for public hearings, but also overloads county land use commissions, leading to delays in land use decisions and diverting the county planning commissions from their role in evaluating projects of countywide concern.

What is General Municipal Law 239-m?

General Municipal Law 239-m states in relevant part:

(a) “[t]he following proposed actions shall be subject to the referral requirements of this section, if they apply to real property set forth in paragraph (b) of this subdivision:

(i) adoption or amendment of a comprehensive plan pursuant to section two hundred seventy-two-a of the town law, section 7-722 of the village law or section twenty-eight-a of the general city law;

(ii) adoption or amendment of a zoning ordinance or local law;

(iii) issuance of special use permits;

(iv) approval of site plans;

(v) granting of use or area variances;

(vi) other authorizations which a referring body may issue under the provisions of any zoning ordinance or local law.

(b) The proposed actions set forth in paragraph (a) of this subdivision shall be subject to the referral requirements of this section if they apply to real property within five hundred feet of the following:

(i) the boundary of any city, village or town; or

(ii) the boundary of any existing or proposed county or state park or any other recreation area; or

(iii) the right-of-way of any existing or proposed county or state parkway, thruway, expressway, road or highway; or

(iv) the existing or proposed right-of-way of any stream or drainage channel owned by the county or for which the county has established channel lines; or

(v) the existing or proposed boundary of any county or state owned land on which a public building or institution is situated; or

(vi) the boundary of a farm operation located in an agricultural district, as defined by article twenty-five-AA of the agriculture and markets law, except this subparagraph shall not apply to the granting of area variances.”  Id.

When Does General Municipal Law 239-m Apply?

When sections 239-m (a) and (b) are read in conjunction with each other, only specific actions must be referred, and only when said specific actions are located within 500 feet of designated boundaries.  Despite the clear language of the statute, it has become routine for towns and villages to refer all land use actions of any kind wherever located.

In an effort to combat unnecessary referrals, the Suffolk County Planning Commission adopted legislation providing towns and villages located in Suffolk County with an opportunity to enter into an Inter-Municipal Agreement (“IMA”) whereby specific types of land use applications are per se designated applications of local determination and do NOT require referral to the Suffolk County Planning Commission.

On September 3, 2008, the Suffolk County Planning Commission adopted legislation which specifically exempts the following land use applications from GML 239-m referral requirements:

1.  All area variances associated with single-family residences;

2.  Change of one permitted use to another with no changes in parking requirements (i.e. retail to office);

3. Minor additions less than 1,000 square feet with no change to use or occupancy;

4. Site plan applications proposing less than 5,000 square feet of new or renovated floor area or less than 10,000 square feet of land disturbance;

5. Exception:  Actions that have been given a Positive Declaration pursuant to SEQR or actions involving property abutting state or county parkland, the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound, any bay in Suffolk County or estuary of any of the foregoing bodies of water shall be subject to the full review process.

Spreading the Word about Inter-Municipal Cooperation

Despite this clear exemption, and although the Towns of Babylon, Islip, Huntington, Riverhead and Southold have entered into IMAs with Suffolk County Planning, many other towns and villages have not.    When discussing the availability of the IMA option with colleagues and town and village officials, many are not even aware of this option.  This option is also available in Nassau County.

So, now that you are aware of the IMA option and how valuable this option can be in moving land use applications more quickly and without unnecessary municipal review, we land use practitioners must stick together and spread the word.  If you are a town or village official or a planning or zoning board member, please investigate this option with your governing county land use commission.

As land use attorneys and those participating in the development community know, the land use approval process is subject to many layers of oversight and review.  It is incumbent upon us to spread the word that one layer of review can  be eliminated by implementing an IMA with your specific county.  In so doing,  not only  will the overall time for a land use application decrease at the town and village level, but also, county planning commissions will be able to commit the necessary resources to evaluate projects of countywide concern, as they are specifically designed to do.