In Peyton v. New York City Bd. of Standards and Appeals, (2018 N.Y. 06870, 166 A.D.3d 120 (1st Dept 2018), Petitioners-community residents (“Petitioners”) commenced a proceeding to challenge the City of New York (“City”) Board of Standards and Appeals’s (“Board”) resolution upholding the City Department of Buildings’s (“DOB”) decision to grant a permit for the construction of a twenty-story nursing home (“Project”) on the Upper West Side.  The main issue is the City’s “open space” mandate (“Open Space Law”) and whether the Project provides enough open space to suffice the requirement.  The Court rulings and the Project’s viability hinged entirely upon how to calculate compliance with the Open Space Law.

At the outset, it is crucial to note the difference between a building-by-building calculation for open space and an open space calculation in the aggregate.  The former calculates the required open space with respect to each individual building within a zoning lot, whereas the latter considers the open space requirement for all buildings existing on an entire zoning lot together.  This distinction is at the heart of the dispute.

Procedurally, as relevant herein, the DOB made its open space calculation for the Project based upon a “building-by-building” methodology and decided to issue the construction permit.  One or more of the Petitioners appealed the DOB’s decision to the Board.  The Board resolved to uphold the issuance of the permit and the calculation methodology, which resolution the Petitioners challenged in this proceeding.  The Supreme Court, New York County, denied the petition and affirmed the Board’s resolution.  Petitioners appealed and the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed.

The Project site is within a “superblock” zoning lot known as “Park West Village” comprising 308,475 square feet, or 7 acres (“Zoning Lot”) (between 97th and 100th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues; the complex extends to Central Park, but that portion is not at issue).  The complex on the Zoning Lot was built in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a federally subsidized middle-income urban renewal project and includes residential buildings, a school, a church, a public library, a health center and commercial buildings.  There are four residential buildings: three original sixteen-story buildings and a more recently constructed twenty-nine-story mixed commercial and residential building (“Fourth Building”).

A forty-year deed restriction had prohibited construction on the Zoning Lot through 2006 and the present owner (“Owner”) acquired the land shortly before the prohibition expired.  Approving and constructing the Fourth Building was the center of controversy between Petitioners, Owner, the City and others, which controversy also revolved around the City’s open space requirements.

Since its inception in 1961, and despite amendments in 1977, the Open Space Law had no particular design or mode to address zoning lots improved with multiple buildings.  With respect to the Fourth Building, there was a disagreement over whether its rooftop open space could count towards the open space requirement for the entire Zoning Lot.  The Fourth Building’s rooftop space included a 42,500 square feet garden, with a mosaic tile saltwater pool, sundeck and lawn.  However, the rooftop garden provided access only to residents of the Fourth Building and did not allow access to occupants of other buildings within the Zoning Lot.  If the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden was included in the open space calculation, then the project met the requirements; if not, then the project would fail.

The DOB performed a building-by-building analysis for the Zoning Lot, included the rooftop garden in its calculation and issued a building permit in 2007.  Residents of Park West Village and others challenged the DOB’s approval based upon the fact that the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden did not provide access to all residents of the Zoning Lot and, thus, could not be included in the open space calculation.

In 2009, the Board resolved to affirm the DOB’s decision (“2009 Resolution”), wherein the Board noted that the Open Space Law’s language requires open space with respect to a “building,” not the zoning lot as a whole; therefore, open space among multiple buildings need not be common, centralized space shared by all occupants of the zoning lot, and the building-by-building methodology for calculating open space suffices.  The 2009 Resolution utilized the building-by-building methodology for the first time and stated: “as each of the buildings is allocated the amount of space that is in excess of that which would be required…if they were located on separate zoning lots, it cannot be seen how those residents would be deprived of an equitable share of open space by the proposed building.”  The Board’s resolution was challenged, but the challenge was settled out of court and the Fourth Building was completed.

Two years later, in February 2011, the City amended the Open Space Law (“2011 Amendments”).  The definition of “open space” has always been: “that part of a zoning lot, including courts or yards, which is open and unobstructed from its lowest level to the sky and is accessible to and usable by all persons occupying a dwelling unit or a rooming unit on the zoning lot.”  The 2011 Amendments modified several other provisions of the Open Space Law (e.g. “open space ratio,” “minimum open space,” etc.) by substituting the words “zoning lot” and “all zoning lots” for the words “building” and “any buildings,” focusing the law and its analysis upon the actual zoning lots – as opposed to individual buildings.

After the City enacted the 2011 Amendments, the Owner sought to utilize a former parking lot within the Zoning Lot, which Park West Village residents previously used.  The Owner entered into an exchange agreement with the Project’s developer (“Developer”) to swap the parking lot for another parcel of land located north of the Zoning Lot and owned by the Developer (“New Parcel”).  The New Parcel was large enough for the Owner to construct another luxury apartment building.  The Owner agreed to pay the Developer $35,000,000 and the Developer promised to complete the project on the former parking lot.  However, this exchange was contingent upon, among other things, the Developer obtaining a permit from the DOB for construction of the Project.

In March 2011, the Developer made its applications to the DOB, which expressly noted that the open space within the Project would be accessible to all persons occupying a dwelling unit on the Zoning Lot.  Developer’s open space calculations for the Project included all of the open space on the zoning lot, including the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden.  Petitioners objected and argued that, based upon the 2011 Amendments to the Open Space Law, the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden no longer counted towards the open space calculation for the Zoning Lot (due to restricted access) and that the building-by-building methodology was invalid.

The DOB disagreed and granted a building permit for the Project.  Petitioners appealed to the Board and the Board resolved to affirm (“2011 Resolution”), relying upon the 2009 Resolution: “in the case of a multi-building zoning lot, the open space definition could be read to allow some open space to be reserved for the residents of a single building as long as the residents of each building on the zoning lot have access to at least the amount of space that would be required…if each building were on separate zoning lots.”  The Board also noted that the 2011 Amendments did not dictate a change in the DOB’s or Board’s building-by-building methodology or open space analysis.

Petitioners challenged the Board’s 2011 Resolution by commencing this proceeding and argued that, even though the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden was arguably within the meaning of open space when it was constructed in 2009, it presently was not open space by virtue of the 2011 Amendments.  These changes to the Open Space Law eliminated any ambiguity as to how to calculate open space and the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden cannot be included because the area is not available to all occupants of the Zoning Lot.

It was undisputed that the Project sufficed the open space requirement with the inclusion of the Fourth Building’s rooftop garden.  It was also undisputed that the Project failed to provide adequate open space without the rooftop garden.  The Board’s main argument was that the City’s Open Space Law is ambiguous and, therefore, the DOB and the Board have discretion to construe it.  In particular, the Board argued that the definition of open space (with accessibility and usability for all residents within a zoning lot) is irreconcilable with the definition of “zoning lot,” which contemplated multiple buildings on a single lot.  Therefore, the Open Space Law was ambiguous and the DOB and the Board were free to interpret and reconcile this ambiguity, i.e. by utilizing the building-by-building methodology.  The Supreme Court denied Petitioner’s petition and dismissed the proceeding. Petitioners appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and annulled the 2011 Resolution.

On appeal, the Appellate Division disagreed with the Board and adopted the Petitioners’ argument that the 2011 Amendments removed the contextual basis upon which the Board relied.  Judicial deference should be given to an agency’s interpretation of a statute it is charged with implementing, unless the interpretation is unreasonable or irrational.  However, where the question is one of pure statutory interpretation, an agency’s interpretation is accorded much less weight and Courts are free to ascertain the proper interpretation from the statutory language and legislative intent.  Here, resolving the dispute concerning the 2011 Amendments does not implicate the expertise of the DOB or the Board as the implementing administrative agencies; instead, the resolution is one of pure statutory analysis and does not require deference to the agencies.

The Appellate Division held that the definition of “open space” is clear and unambiguous, requiring open space to be accessible to all residents of any residential building on the zoning lot – not only the building containing the open space in question.  The Court noted this clarity is further bolstered by the 2011 Amendments, which eliminated all references to “building” and replaced the term with “zoning lot” in the relevant Open Space Law provisions.  Therefore, any space, including a rooftop, that is to be considered “open space” for purpose of satisfying the requirement must be accessible and usable by all residents of the zoning lot.  In addition, the Court expressly invalidated the building-by-building methodology: “Lest there be any doubt, we find that the 2011 [A]mendments now preclude use of [this] methodology, which has been an exception to this clear statutory import.”

The Court also noted that absence of legislative history did not evidence an intent to accept the building-by-building methodology.  Rather, the 2011 Amendments replacement of the word “building” was an unmistakable rejection of the use of this formula.  Notably, one of the four Judges dissented, which may lead the case to the Court of Appeals.

In 1999, the Greenport Group, LLP (“Greenport Group”) acquired a 31 acre parcel of land located on the east side of Chapel Lane and the north side of the Main Road in Greenport in the Town of Southold. The southerly portion of the property was zoned “Limited Business” and the northerly portion was zoned “Hamlet Density”. When purchased, there were four buildings on the property, each containing two residential units that were part of a larger project to build multi-residence senior citizen housing, which had been approved for an additional 140 units. The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals granted a conditional site plan and special exception approval for the construction of the multiple residence complex in or about 1976, with certificates of occupancy being issued for the four buildings on the property in 1984. The additional units were never built and no further construction took place on site.

On September 12, 2000, the Town Board of the Town of Southold adopted a local law, Local Law 20 of 2000, changing the zoning of the property to Residential Low Density, R-80. The R-80 designation increased the minimum lot size permitted on the property from 10,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet. The local law was filed with the Secretary of State on October 2, 2000. Thereafter, the Greenport Group filed a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and Declaratory Judgment action in Supreme Court on February 2, 2001, entitled Greenport Group, LLP and Adrienne Solof v. The Town Board of the Town of Southold, Index No. 01-2730, seeking a judgment declaring that the local law up-zoning the property was null and void. Greenport Group alleged that the Town Board’s actions were arbitrary and capricious, that the re-zoning subjected their property to disparate treatment and constituted reverse spot zoning, that they had vested rights in the prior zoning designations, that the rezoning was inconsistent with the goals of the Town Comprehensive Plan, and the rezoning constituted a regulatory taking of the property without just compensation. In response, the Town Board moved for summary judgment.

The Supreme Court, Suffolk County, by decision dated June 17, 2015, granted summary judgment in part, dismissing the Greenport Group’s claims that (i) the Town failed to comply with the notice requirements rendering the local law adoption invalid since plaintiff actually participated in the local law hearing, (ii) the Town’s adoption of the local law changing the zoning constituted impermissible spot zoning where Greenport Group failed to allege or offer evidence that the change was “for the benefit of the owner to the detriment of other owners”, (iii) that Greenport Group had vested property rights in the prior zoning of the property when no construction was performed on site in connection with the development prior to the zone change, and (iv) the re-zoning constitutes a taking without just compensation since Greenport Group citing an 80% diminution of the property’s value was deemed insufficient and failed to prove that the property was incapable of producing a reasonable return or that the economic value of the property was destroyed by the zone change.

The Supreme Court denied the Town’s motion for summary judgment relative to the second and fifth causes of action asserted by Greenport Group. The second and fifth causes of action asserted by the Greenport Group alleged that the Town Board’s adoption was arbitrary and capricious representing an unconstitutional abuse of the Town Board’s zoning authority, and that the re-zoning was unjustified and failed to achieve the purported goals of the local law and land use plans. Here, the Court found that Greenport Group had raised triable issues of fact as to whether the Town Board’s stated intent of the re-zoning was the actual purpose for re-zoning Greenport Group’s property. The Supreme Court stated, “[p]arenthetically, since the re-zoning was enacted approximately 14 years ago, the witnesses’ recollection as to the zoning classification was legitimately less than ideal. Although the Town Board’s decision appears to be supported by the CR48 Land Use Study… and tremendous deference is given to the local municipality’s decision-making process and its authority, the Court will not simply rubberstamp a local municipality’s assertion that it was following the advice of its own consultant. Instead, the Court must examine the record, including the adopted legislation, to determine whether the legislation was reasonable and enacted in accordance with the municipality’s land use plan. Here, notwithstanding the documentary evidence supporting the Town Board’s claim, plaintiffs raise questions of fact concerning similarly situated properties included within the CCG studies but treated differently by the Town Board.” Therefore, the Supreme Court denied the Town’s motion for summary judgment with respect to these two causes of action.

The parties cross-appealed the matter and the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its decision entitled Greenport Group, LLC et al., v. Town Board of the Town of Southold, dated December 5, 2018, remitted the matter to the Supreme Court for “severance” of the causes of action asserted by Greenport Group and the entry of judgment declaring the Local Law that changed the zoning classification was valid. The Appellate Division reviewed and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of each of Greenport Groups causes of action. However, the Court found that the Supreme Court should have granted the Town Board’s motion for summary judgement with respect to the second and fifth causes asserting that the rezoning of the property was arbitrary and inconsistent with the comprehensive plan. The Appellate Division cited the “heavy burden of countering the strong presumption of validity accorded the enactment [of local laws]” and further stated that “if the validity of the legislative classification for zoning purposes is even ‘fairly debatable,’ the classification must be sustained upon judicial review (citing, Matter of Town of Bedford v. Village of Mount Kisco, 33 NY2d at 186).” The Appellate Division also found that Greenport Group failed to raise a triable issue of fact, contrary to the Supreme Court’s findings, regarding the purpose and intent of the re-zoning stating, “[w]hile the courts must satisfy themselves that the rezoning meets the statutory requirement that zoning be in accordance with the comprehensive plan of the community, this does not entail examining the motives of local officials (Udell v. Haas, 21 NY2d 463, 471).” Ultimately, the Appellate Division found that the local law changing the zoning classification of the Greenport Group’s property was valid and remitted the matter to the Supreme Court for appropriate judgment.

 

 

The Breakers Motel has been a fixture in Montauk since the 1950’s. Situated at 769 Old Montauk Highway, Montauk New York, the motel has 26 units, a pool and restaurant and is located across the street from the ocean.

In 2015 a building permit was issued by the Town of East Hampton Building Department approving renovations to the existing restaurant inside the motel, including an updated dining area, adding a bar, improving the kitchen facilities and more. The neighboring property owner, a revocable trust, unsuccessfully appealed the Building Department’s determination to issue the April 27, 2015 building permit to the Town of East Hampton Zoning Board of Appeals.

In an Article 78 petition and plenary action entitled Jane H. Concannon Revocable Trust v. The Building Department of the Town of East Hampton, Town of East Hampton Zoning Board of Appels, and Breakers Motel, Inc., Index No. 4297/2016, dated February 5, 2018, the revocable trust (“Petitioner”) appealed the Zoning Board of Appeal’s determination to the Supreme Court.

At the Zoning Board of Appeals, Petitioner argued that because a restaurant had not operated on site since the 1970’s, an application for a special permit under the current Town Code was required before the building permit for renovations could have been issued. The Breakers Motel argued that the restaurant has always been a permitted use and was in place prior to the current Town Code provisions requiring special permits.

Breakers submitted that the restaurant fixtures had never been removed from the site, and a prior Certificate of Occupancy issued in 2005 and Site Plan approval issued in 2010 both referenced and approved the restaurant. All parties conceded that the restaurant was never pre-existing nonconforming and was, in fact, always permitted.

Prior to 1984, the subject property was zoned Multiple Residence District (“MD”), which permitted a restaurant as accessory to a motel. After 1984, the zoning was amended to Resort District (“RS”), which permitted restaurants pursuant to a special permit. The Zoning Board of Appeals denied petitioner’s appeal and declined to consider the merits of petitioner’s appeal, finding that the appeal was untimely pursuant to the 60 day statute of limitations set forth in NYS Town Law §267-a and East Hampton Town Code §255-8-35(A).

Petitioner brought the above referenced proceeding by order to show cause seeking a judgment annulling the Zoning Board of Appeals decision, revoking the building permit and imposing a permanent injunction enjoining further renovations to the restaurant without a special permit.

The Court held that a special permit was not required for the restaurant use, since the use had been in place prior to the 1984 adoption of the RS Zoning District. The Court stated,

“Simply stated, the concept of “use” in the context of zoning regulations is not the equivalent of “in use” or “used” as is made clear in the following definitions in the East Hampton Town Code sections 255-1-14(G) and (H)…” The Court further found that the East Hampton Town definitions of use were consistent with “what is generally accepted in New York zoning law,” stating,

“USE: The specific purpose for which land or a building is designed, arranged, intended, or for which it is or may be occupied or maintained. The term “permitted use,” or its equivalent, shall not be deemed to include any nonconforming use. USE: The purposes for which a structure or premises, or part thereof is occupied, designed, arranged or intended,” citing, Salkin, N.Y. Zoning Law and Prac., 3d Edition §38:05, Sample definition.

The Court relied upon the fact that the restaurant configuration on site was never changed; and the kitchen fixtures and equipment had remained in place since the 1970’s, stating, “the area in question was designed, arranged and intended to be a restaurant; i.e., the use continued even though it was not “used” as a restaurant.”

The Court went on to distinguish the special permit restaurant use from pre-existing nonconforming uses that can be abandoned after time since the special permit use was not rendered illegal after the zone change to RS. Relying on Town Code §255-5-25, which states in relevant part that “special permit uses which either lawfully exist on the effective date of this article…shall, in all respects, constitute lawful and conforming uses under this chapter,” the Court held that the Breakers Motel restaurant use was legal, even under the new RS zoning, and did not require a special permit to be maintained or altered.

The Court denied the request for the permanent injunction and dismissed the proceeding. Petitioner submitted a Notice of Appeal to the Appellate Division, Second Department, while patrons of the Breakers Motel enjoyed the newly renovated restaurant and bar.

In opposing Crossroad Ventures, LLC’s (“Crossroad Ventures“) endeavor to construct a vacation resort partially within the Town of Shandaken, (“Town“), grassroots preservation organization Catskill Heritage Alliance, Inc. (“Alliance“) commenced two consecutive Article 78 proceedings challenging certain approvals.  The Court addressed multiple appeals from both proceedings in Catskill Heritage Alliance, Inc. v. Crossroads Ventures, LLC, et al., 161 A.D.3d 1413 (3d Dep’t 2018).  In its opinion, the Court reinforced the principle that a board of appeals is the sole interpreter of its ordinance and that interpretations by other boards or bodies may be fatal to municipal approvals and determinations.

In this case, the Town’s zoning ordinance allowed a resort with a special permit and site plan approval from the Town Planning Board (“Planning Board“).  However, the ordinance did not define “Vacation Resort.” In 2000, Crossroads Ventures requested an interpretation and definition of the term to determine what uses are allowed as part of a resort. The Town Zoning Board of Appeals (“Zoning Board“) responded to the request by analogizing a vacation resort to a hotel, motel or lodge development and determined the term included all uses integral to the hotel, motel or lodge development and clearly accessory to it, as well as other uses allowed in the area, either as of right or by permission. After receiving the interpretation, Crossroads Ventures undertook a prolonged environmental review and developed a plan for the resort: two hotels, a conference center, community centers and additional lodging scattered among several duplexes and multiple unit buildings.

In 2013, towards the end of its environmental review, Crossroads Ventures made an application to the Planning Board for a special permit and site plan approval. The Planning Board issued the special permit and conditionally approved the site plan. The Alliance commenced its first Article 78 proceeding challenging these determinations. The Supreme Court, Ulster County, issued a decision in October 2016 denying Crossroad Venture’s motion to dismiss and granting the Alliance’s petition, in part. The Court found that, although the Planning Board properly determined that non-habitational structures fell within the clear definition of permissible accessory uses to the resort, it improperly resolved an ambiguity in the ordinance as to whether detached duplexes and multiple unit buildings were permitted uses in the area. Accordingly, the Court annulled the determinations and remitted the matter to the Zoning Board to address the propriety of residential structures. The parties appealed the October 2016 decision.

On remittal, the Zoning Board interpreted the ordinance and clarified that detached residential units were permitted “lodges.” Thereafter, the Planning Board, again, granted Crossroads Ventures’ application, issued a special permit and conditionally approved the site plan. The Alliance commenced its second Article 78 proceeding challenging both the Zoning Board’s interpretation and the latest Planning Board approvals. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition by decision dated July 2017 and the Alliance appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department, decided both appeals. With respect to the October 2016 decision, the appellate Court affirmed both the denial of the motion to dismiss and the granting of the petition, in part. The Court noted that zoning boards of appeals are the bodies with the authority to interpret ordinances – not planning boards. To the extent any ambiguities exist in the pertinent ordinance, a planning board must request an interpretation thereof from its board of appeals. In 2000, the Zoning Board interpreted the “Vacation Resort” term to include conference centers and community centers as integral, accessory uses, but it did not opine on detached duplexes and multiple-unit buildings. This was problematic because the latter structures are habitations and could be viewed either as permitted lodges or as new multifamily dwellings prohibited under the ordinance affecting the project area. The Planning Board should have requested another interpretation from the Zoning Board, rather than resolving the ambiguity itself. Therefore, the appeals Court affirmed the lower Court’s October 2016 decision to annul the Planning Board’s approvals for the resort and to remit the issue to the Zoning Board.

Next, the appeals Court reviewed the July 2017 decision. This later decision addressed both the Zoning Board’s interpretation of the duplexes and multiple-unit buildings and the Planning Board’s subsequent (second set of) approvals. The appeals Court found the Zoning Board’s interpretation deserved deference because it was not a purely legal interpretation – it was rendered upon the facts of Crossroads Ventures’ proposal. The Town ordinance defined “multiple dwellings” as structures within three or more dwelling units, but stated that rooms in a boardinghouse, dormitory, motel, inn or other similar building do not constitute dwelling units. Although the Town ordinance did not define the term “lodge,” the Zoning Board noted that a lodge is commonly defined as a transient residence, such as an inn or similar building having rooms that are excluded from the ordinance’s definition of dwelling unit. Ultimately, the permanence of residency was determinative.

The Zoning Board concluded that a lodge includes structures containing one or more units of lodging and sleeping accommodations for transient occupancy in connection with the special permitted use of a hotel, lodge development or vacation resort held under common ownership – so long as the users had primary residence elsewhere. And, the Zoning Board determined that the proposed structures at the resort were intended for transient occupancy, as rentals or timeshares; therefore, these were permitted lodges, as opposed to prohibited new multifamily dwellings. The Court found this interpretation to be rational. The Court also found that the Planning Board, relying upon the Zoning Board’s 2000 and 2017 valid interpretations, rationally determined to issue the special permit and conditional site plan approval for the resort. Therefore, the Court affirmed the July 2017 decision.

Recently Farrell Fritz, P.C. represented a family held limited liability company in connection with an application to a East End zoning board of appeals to maintain an eight (8) foot fence and six (6) foot driveway gates around its property in Sagaponack.   See, 79 Parsonage LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Incorporated Village of Sagaponack.  Both the fence and a portion of the applicant’s gates violated the Village of Sagaponack’s six (6) foot height limitation.

On behalf of the applicant, Farrell Fritz argued that a fence was necessary to exclude a family of deer that had taken up residence on the property.  Exclusion of the deer was necessary as one member of the household had suffered through two bouts of Lyme’s Disease. In addition, the fence was constructed among mature vegetation and was not visible from the street.

Despite those and additional arguments offered at the hearing, the Sagaponack Zoning Board denied the application.

On behalf of the property owner, Farrell Fritz commenced an Article 78 proceeding in the New York State Supreme Court, Suffolk County, appealing the Zoning Board’s Decision.

On December 15, 2017, Justice Gerard W. Asher, J.S.C. overturned the Zoning Board’s denial and directed the Board to issue the requested variances finding that the applicant overcame the presumption afforded to Zoning Boards in deciding zoning cases. Through the Article 78, Farrell Fritz demonstrated that no evidence existed to support the Zoning Board’s decision; and its findings were conclusory, and therefore irrational and arbitrary and capricious. Judge Asher agreed with the application that the fence was hidden, and a grant would benefit the applicant because one of the two members already suffered from Lyme’s Disease. After making the findings, Judge Asher vacated and annulled the ZBA determination.

What Judge Asher makes clear in his Decision, and should be considered by all practitioners, is that zoning boards must balance all of the relevant considerations in a rational way.

In Fichera, et al. v. New York State Dep’t of Envt’l Conserv., et al., decided last month, Petitioners commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to void actions taken and determinations made by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Sterling (“Sterling ZBA”) and to enjoin the advancement of a mine project (“Mine Project”). Below, the Supreme Court, County of Cayuga, denied the petition and granted various motions to dismiss. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that (1) the petition was timely and (2) the Supreme Court erred by dismissing the cause of action based upon a violation of  New York General Municipal Law section 239-m (“Section 239-m”) and by not granting the petition thereupon. The appeals court remitted the matter back to the Sterling ZBA.

As pertinent to the appeal, the Article 78 petition claimed that the Sterling ZBA violated Section 239-m when it granted the Mine Project owners’ original application for an area variance without referring the matter to the appropriate county planning agency or regional planning council. Therefore, petitioners argued, the Sterling ZBA’s action in granting the area variance application was deemed null and void. Petitioners further argued that the Sterling ZBA’s sua sponte decision to grant the Mine Project owners an amended area variance based upon its previous determination on the original application was also null and void.

In opposition to the petition, respondents argued that the challenge to the determination granting the initial area variance was time-barred because petitioners failed to commence their challenge within 30 days of the original determination, as required by New York Town Law section 267-c(1). In addition, respondents contended that the determination granting the subsequent amended area variance was made by the Sterling ZBA after it made the appropriate referrals required by Section 239-m.

The appeals court agreed with the petitioners and emphasized the jurisdictional importance of complying with Section 239-m in declaring the Sterling ZBA’s approvals null and void. In many instances, Section 239-m requires a municipal agency to refer an application to a county or regional planning board for its recommendation prior to the agency taking final action on an application for land use approval. The Sterling ZBA did not refer the initial application for an area variance to the Cayuga County Planning Board before taking final action with respect to that application. Failure to comply with Section 239-m is not a mere procedural irregularity; rather, it is a jurisdictional defect involving the validity of a legislative act. Accordingly, the Sterling ZBA’s failure to refer the initial application to the county planning board renders the approval null and void.

Moreover, the appeals court held that the Sterling ZBA’s determination in granting the subsequent amended area variance was also null and void. “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the [Sterling] ZBA’s approval of the amended area variance is likewise null and void.”

Notably, if the county or regional planning board recommends modifications or disapproves an application, then the referring body cannot act otherwise – except by a vote of majority plus one of all members. Here, the Sterling ZBA unanimously approved the grant of the amended area variance and the respondents argued that the unanimous approval of the amended area variance was sufficient to override any recommendation by Cayuga County Planning Board to disapprove or modify (had the Sterling ZBA referred in the first place). “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the [Sterling] ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

Lastly, the appeals court found that the Article 78 petition was timely, despite having been brought well-after the Sterling ZBA’s determination respecting the initial area variance application. The filing of a jurisdictionally defective document does not commence the statute of limitations. Therefore, the statute of limitations never ran and the petition was timely.

The Appellate Division modified the Supreme Court’s judgment in conformance with its opinion (discussed above) and remitted the matter to the Sterling ZBA for a new determination on the area variance application.