In 2015 the Village of East Hampton enacted five local laws reducing the maximum allowable gross floor area for residences, reducing the maximum permitted coverage for all structures,  reducing the maximum allowable gross floor area for accessory buildings, amending the definition of “story” and amending the definition of “cellar”. The petitioner/plaintiffs (“petitioners”) own real property in the Village and commenced a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and Declaratory Judgment action entitled Bonacker Property, LLC v. Village of East Hampton Board of Trustees et al., Supreme Court, Suffolk County, Index No. 15-12506, September 2, 2016, challenging the enactment of the local laws. Petitioners sought to annul the Board of Trustee’s adoption of a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and claimed that (i) the local laws were not in accordance with the Village Comprehensive Plan, (ii) the Board of Trustees improperly relied upon recommendations from the Planning and Zoning Committee, and (iii) the Board of Trustees failed to comply with SEQRA. The petition also sought declaratory relief. The Supreme Court denied the petition, dismissed the proceeding/action and declared the local laws constitutional and valid. The petitioners appealed.

The Appellate Division, Second Department upheld the Supreme Court’s determination in Matter of Bonacker Property, LLC et al, v. Village of East Hampton Board of Trustees, et al., dated January 23, 2019. The Court noted that New York State Village Law §7-722(11)(a) requires that where a village has adopted a comprehensive plan, the village’s zoning decisions must be in accordance with the plan. However, the Court went on to recognize the presumption of validity afforded to the legislative act of enacting zoning laws. The Court quoted Matter of Town of Bedford v. Village of Mount Kisco, 33 N.Y.2d 178, 186, stating “[e]ven if the validity of a provision is fairly debatable, the municipality’s judgment as to its necessity must control.”   Ultimately, the Court found the enactments limiting gross floor area and coverage “entirely consistent with the comprehensive plan.”

The Court also found that the Village Board of Trustees complied with the requirements of SEQRA stating the Board identified the relevant areas of environmental concern, took the requisite “hard look” at them and made a reasoned elaboration in its negative declaration. The Court stated, “[g]iven the nature of the proposed action here, which would have only beneficial environmental effect, and the focus of the assessment form, which is to identify negative environmental effects of the proposed action, the rapid review and completion of the environmental assessment form was not arbitrary or capricious.”

Moreover, the Court found that the record supported the Supreme Court’s determination that the Planning and Zoning Committee was advisory in nature, did not perform governmental functions and it was proper for the Board of Trustees to rely on the committee’s advice pertaining to the enactment of the local laws.

Ultimately, the Court upheld the Supreme Court’s determination with regard to the Article 78 claims however remanded the declaratory judgment claims back to the Supreme Court since the Supreme Court improperly employed the summary procedure applicable to an Article 78 proceeding to dispose causes of action to recover damages or seeking declaratory judgment. The Court noted, “where no party makes a request for a summary determination of the causes of action which seek to recover damages or declaratory relief, it is error for the Supreme Court to summarily dispose of those causes of action.” Thus, the Court remitted the matter back to the Supreme court for further proceedings on those causes of action for damages and declaratory judgment. Finally, the Court expressed no opinion as to the merits of those claims.

In Abbatiello v Town of North Hempstead, 164 A.D.3d 785 [2d Dept. 2018], the Second Department recently reversed Supreme Court, Nassau County and granted the petitioner’s CPLR Article 78 challenge to the Town of North Hempstead Board of Zoning Appeals (“Board”) denial of a use variance.  In finding that the house was a “legal nonconforming” 2-family residence, the Appellate Division ordered the Town to issue the requested  use variance.

A legal nonconforming use, commonly referred to as “grandfathered”, is a use of property which lawfully existed prior to the enactment of a zoning ordinance which now prohibits it.  The “legal nonconforming” use doctrine is a fact sensitive inquiry that protects property rights, which is directly at odds with a municipality’s comprehensive plan for an area.

The courts are routinely the venue used to protect legal nonconforming uses property rights.   In Abbatiello, when the petitioner purchased the property in 1977, he believed that the house was a legal two-family residence.  Since he purchased the property, the petitioner has been renting out the two units, and he has obtained various permits from the Town allowing him to do so.  In October 2013, the petitioner applied for a variance to permit him to continue using the property as a two-family dwelling.  The Town rejected the application, and the petitioner appealed to the Board, which ultimately denied the petitioner.  The Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s denial.

In reversing the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division found that the property owner was entitled to the use variance permitting him to use the property as two-family dwelling for rental purposes.  The owner presented evidence, including affidavits from neighbors and others who had lived in community for many years, which was sufficient to establish that property was legal two-family residence prior to amendments to the town zoning code, and there was no evidence presented to demonstrated that property had been converted into two-family dwelling after amendments.  As the Court noted, critical to establishing a legal nonconforming use, a property owner must demonstrate that the allegedly preexisting use was legal prior to the enactment of the zoning ordinance that purportedly rendered it nonconforming.  Id.

If you are facing zoning challenges to a use that is “grandfathered” you may be able to use the “legal nonconforming” doctrine to protect your property right(s).

In Matter of HV Donuts, LLC v. Town of LaGrange Zoning Board of Appeals, the Second Department recently held that a property owner’s nonconforming use rights continue despite a temporary business interruption caused by a fuel truck accident and gasoline spill.

The property owner, Leemilt’s Petroleum, Inc. (the “Owner”), leased the subject property (the “Premises”) to a tenant who operated a gas station and a convenience store at the Premises. Both the gas station and the convenience store were legal nonconforming uses under the Town’s zoning regulations.

Under Section 240-29 of the Code of the Town of LaGrange (hereinafter the “Code”), a “nonconforming use . . . is one which existed lawfully” prior to the date that the Code or an amendment to the Code was enacted, which results in the failure of that prior use to conform to the Code (see Code § 240-29[B]). However, in order for such use to maintain its status as a nonconforming use, it must not be discontinued. The Code provides that a nonconforming use is deemed discontinued when “the nonconformity has ceased for a period of one year or more” (see Code § 240-29[F][4]).

The case arose out of an accident in June 2013, when a fuel delivery tanker hit a light pole, spilling approximately 3,000 gallons of gasoline on the Premises. This forced the gas station and the convenience store to temporarily cease business operations and begin remedial efforts. After the Owner completed the restoration work in October 2014, a leak was discovered in the gasoline pump system piping when it was tested in anticipation of reopening. This required additional remediation and further delayed the reopening.

Eventually, the Owner completed this additional work and thereafter sought approval from the Town’s building inspector to reopen the gas station. The Owner also applied for a building permit from the Town’s building inspector “to upgrade the convenience store building, which had not been damaged by the spill and remediation efforts.” Section 240-29(E) of the Code permits the “re-establishment of nonconforming uses after casualties,” under certain time conditions. Section 240-29(E) of the Code provides the following:

“If any nonconforming building or structure or any building or structure containing a nonconforming use shall be damaged or destroyed by fire or other casualty, such building or structure . . . may be restored and any such nonconforming use resumed to the extent that such building, structure or use existed at the time of the casualty, provided that a building permit for such restoration is obtained within a period of one year from such casualty and is diligently prosecuted to completion.”

Pursuant to that provision, the building inspector granted the Owner’s request, giving it one year from September 22, 2015—the date of the building inspector’s determination—to re-establish its nonconforming use.

A Dunkin Donuts franchise (the “Petitioner”) located across the street from the Premises appealed the building inspector’s determination to the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (the “ZBA”). The Petitioner contended that the nonconforming use had been lost and could not be re-established, citing Sections 240-29(E) and (F) of the Code.

The ZBA determined that “there was ‘more to maintaining a gasoline filling station than pumping gas,’” and that the “remediation of the petroleum spills amounted to a continuation of the nonconforming use.” Thus, there was no “discontinuation” within the meaning of Code Section 240-29(F)(4). Furthermore, the ZBA concluded that the building permit requirement of Code Section 240-29(E) did not apply to the convenience store because neither casualty affected the convenience store.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected the Petitioner’s Article 78 challenge, holding that the ZBA’s determinations were rationally based and entitled to deference. The Second Department affirmed. Therefore, under HV Donuts, a nonconforming use may not be lost by remedial and restoration activities that temporarily shut down site operations, provided these activities are diligently pursued and completed.

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.

 

 

In a decision dated October 30, 2018, Supreme Court Judge Joseph Pastoressa remanded a decision made by the Southampton Village Architectural and Historic Board (BARHP) for further consideration. Manger et al. v. Board of Architectural Review and Historic Review of the Village of Southampton.

 The property owner in Manger applied to the BARHP for a certificate of appropriateness to construct a single family dwelling and accessory structures on two separate lots in the Village of Southampton. The lots are in a Historic District which requires a Certificate of Appropriateness as a condition precedent to issuing a building permit.

During the public hearing process that resulted in an approval of the application, the Board stated that it could not consider the size of the house in its review of the proposed construction. The Board took this position because the house as proposed fully complied with the Zoning Code of the Village of Southampton. That position was supported by Board precedent and a prior decision in Ferrara v. Board of Architectural Review.

Immediate neighbors of the property brought the Article 78 proceeding and argued that scale and size were different measurements and the Board could consider the scale of houses and any corresponding impact on the neighboring properties. Alternatively, the property owner and Village argued that if a house complied with Zoning then the BARHP was powerless to require a reduction in size. Ultimately, Judge Pastoressa rejected that argument and sent the matter back to the Board for re-consideration.

This case highlights the tension between the Zoning Code and the Historic and Landmark Preservation Code. Historically, zoning was enacted to protect light and air between properties. This protection is accomplished through setbacks and the restrictions on the size of a structure. One of the stated considerations of the Historic and Landmark Preservation Law is the impact of new construction on the character of nearby properties.

As held by Judge Pastoressa, the BARHP now may consider the impact of new construction on surrounding properties. But, that consideration still must include an analysis of the new construction under Zoning Code provisions.

Since the Declaration of Purposes of the Zoning Code (§116-1) and the Legislative Findings and Intent (§65-1) in the Historic and Landmark Preservation Law share many common core goals, compliance with the Zoning Code is certainly compelling if not overwhelming evidence that the mass and scale of new construction is appropriate.  So, while the option to reduce the size of a structure is seemingly available to the BAHRP, it must show that the Zoning Code somehow failed to achieve one of its basic goals. There must be significant evidence showing an impact not addressed by the Zoning Code for the BARHP to reduce the size of a structure under that which is allowed by Zoning.

Ultimately, this leaves a potential purchaser of real property in a bind. Any advice by counsel to a purchaser must be given with a caveat that the BAHRP has final say and compliance with the Zoning Code does not guarantee approval.

 

A use variance is arguably one of the most difficult zoning approvals to obtain and is rarely granted.  Petitioners in 54 Marion Ave., LLC v. City of Saratoga Springs, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 04611, 162 A.D.3d 1341 (3d Dep’t 2018),  commenced a hybrid proceeding/action to challenge and annul a determination of the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA“) of City of Saratoga Spring (“City”) to deny  a use variance application to allow commercial use of residential property and for Section 1983 damages based upon the theory of regulatory taking. The Respondents moved to dismiss and the Supreme Court, Saratoga County (“Motion Court“), granted the motion. Petitioners appealed and the Appellate Division, Third Department (“Appeals Court“), reversed in part and affirmed in part, and found hardship which was not self-created.

Petitioner 54 Marion Avenue, LLC (“Owner“) owns a vacant parcel of real property situated in the City’s Urban Residential-2 District, where single-family residences are permitted as of right, where other uses are allowed with a special use permit and site plan review and where commercial uses are generally prohibited. Petitioner Maple Shade Corners, LLC (“Purchaser“) contracted to purchase the subject parcel contingent upon obtaining a use variance to allow a dental practice to operate thereon. An application was made to the ZBA for a use variance to allow the dental practice in Urban Residential-2 and the ZBA denied the application because the alleged hardship was not unique and was self-created. Petitioners brought this litigation to annul the ZBA’s decision denying the use variance and to seek damages for regulatory taking. Respondents moved to dismiss based upon Petitioners’ failure to state a cause of action, which the Motion Court granted.

In order to qualify for a use variance, an applicant must meet the very difficult task of demonstrating the following four elements: (i) it cannot realize a reasonable return if the property is used for a permitted purpose; (ii) the hardship results from unique characteristics of the property; (iii) the proposed use will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood; and (iv) the hardship has not been self-created. The ZBA found that the Petitioner met the first and third elements, but failed to meet the second and fourth elements – that the hardship was unique and was not self-created. On appeal, the Appeals Court reversed the Motion Court as to the hardship issues.

In its review of the ZBA’s determination, the Appeals Court noted that the subject property lies next to the intersection of a major thoroughfare and a side street. Petitioners substantiated their claim that this location imposes a unique financial hardship because of the commercial development and increasing traffic along the thoroughfare (occurring over the prior 30 years) with statements from prior owners and real estate professionals.  These statements recounted previous failed attempts to sell the subject parcel for permitted residential use and opined its location rendered it unmarketable for residential use, among other things. In light of this proof, the Appeals Court found that the need for a use variance was not self-created because it only arose after the property was acquired and due to the gradual shift in the character of the area, which rendered the residential use requirement onerous and obsolete. Moreover, the Appeals Court noted that even the ZBA agreed the location of the parcel on the corner might impact its value; the ZBA’s ultimate conclusion that the financial hardship was not unique was contrary to that observation. On a motion to dismiss, Courts must accept the allegations presented as true and, based upon the foregoing, the Appeals Court held that Petitioners set forth a viable challenge to the ZBA’s denial and reversed the Motion Court.

With respect to the regulatory taking claim, the Appellate Division affirmed dismissal. In order for a taking claim to be ripe, a claimant must demonstrate that it has received a final decision regarding the application of the challenged regulations to the subject property from the governing entity and that it has sought compensation through the appropriate state procedures. Although the ZBA’s denial of the use variance satisfied the final decision prong, the Appeals Court found that there is no indication the Petitioners sought compensation under State law.

In Real Estate Bd. of New York, Inc. v. City of New York, Petitioner-Plaintiff Real Estate Board of New York, Inc. (“REBNY”) commenced a hybrid article 78 proceeding and plenary action against the City of New York (“City”) challenging the City’s adoption of Local Law No. 50 of 2015 (“Local Law”), which placed a moratorium on the conversion of hotel rooms to residential units.

REBNY’s article 78 claims sought to annul the Local Law and permanently enjoin the City from enacting similar legislation unless it complied with the City Charter’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (“ULURP”) and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”). REBNY’s plenary claims sought compensation for taking and for due process and equal protection violations under the State and Federal constitutions.

The City moved to dismiss REBNY’s claims based on standing, among other things. The Supreme Court, New York County (“Motion Court“), granted the City’s motion and dismissed all of REBNY’s claims for lack of standing.  On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department (“Appeals Court“) effectively reversed the Motion Court’s decision.  The Appeals Court held that REBNY had standing to bring its article 78 claims, except under SEQRA.  The Appeals Court also held that REBNY had standing to assert its plenary causes of action, but held that REBNY abandoned its claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 because REBNY did not address them on appeal.

The City enacted the Local Law in June 2015 to allow for the study of the effect of the conversion of hotel rooms from transient guest spaces to full-time residential units on the City’s economy. Its legislative findings asserted that large hotels are essential to vacation and business travelers, important generators of well-paying jobs and anchors for surrounding economic activity. The findings also expressed concern that the conversions are occurring quickly and may be irreversible. In addition, the legislative intent noted the current market conditions, the profitability of conversions and the City’s developers’ rush to convert.

The Local Law placed a two-year moratorium (extended to four years, i.e. June 2019) on the conversion of Manhattan hotel rooms to residential units. More specifically, the Local Law applied to hotels with at least 150 units and prohibited the conversion of more than 20% of hotel rooms. The Local Law provided an exemption for conversions begun in the two years preceding its effective date and allowed owners to seek a waiver from the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals (“BSA”), which waiver was not as-of-right.

REBNY, a non-profit corporation comprised of 17,000 members (property owners, developers, lenders, managers, architects, designers, appraisers, attorneys and brokers), asserted that 175 hotels, including 29 REBNY members, were affected by the Local Law. REBNY argued that by restricting the rights of affected hotels, the Local Law reduced the value of the properties, among other things.

The City moved to dismiss on the basis that REBNY lacked organizational standing.  To have organizational standing to challenge the enactment of the Local Law, REBNY must satisfy three elements : (i) one or more of its members must have standing; (ii) the interest it asserts must be germane to its purpose; and, (iii) neither the claim asserted nor the relief sought requires the individual members’ participation (ensuring the organization is the proper petitioner/plaintiff). Standing requires injury-in-fact which falls within the zone of interests and which is different in kind or degree from the public at-large.

The Appeals Court ultimately held that REBNY sufficed the injury requirement. Owners of property subject to new zoning restrictions are presumptively affected by the change. REBNY member hotels were negatively affected by the Local Law, including but not limited to, the diminution of property value and the costs associated with applying for a waiver. These negative effects satisfied the injury-in-fact requirement.

One of the bases cited for this finding was the Local Law’s own legislative intent, which noted that the Local Law would not be necessary if conversions were not so profitable. Thus, with respect to first part of the three-prong test for organizational standing, the Appeals Court held one or more member’s sustained sufficient injury-in-fact within the zone of interests and different in kind from the public at-large.

However, REBNY satisfied the second and third prongs for organizational standing on only some its claims.  Pertinently, with respect to the article 78 claims, the Appeals Court held REBNY had standing for all claims, except under SEQRA. REBNY focuses on the economic and political health of the real estate industry. The Court rejected REBNY’s argument that it sought to protect its member’s environmental interests in air quality and traffic. REBNY’s only “environmental” focus is on the economic environment.  Economic interests – alone – are insufficient to confer SEQRA’s zone of interests. While economic interests are germane to REBNY’s purpose to the extent it is a real estate industry advocacy group, environmental interests are not.  Therefore, REBNY is only a proper petitioner for the non-SEQRA claims.

Notably, the sole dissenting Judge opined, among other things, that REBNY did not have standing for any claim. The dissent argued that REBNY’s allegations of potential future economic harm were amorphous and did not suffice an injury-in-fact. REBNY’s members have neither attempted to convert nor sought exemption by waiver form the BSA. REBNY did not provide competent proof, e.g. appraisals, evaluations, etc. Additionally, the waiver application fee is de minimis and does not constitute an injury.

Given the complex zoning regulations that govern development of vacant land, in recent years, it has become uniquely challenging to develop smaller tracts of vacant land that do not conform to the current zoning code.  Further, the doctrines of merger and single and separate add to the complications.  Unless a buyer is absolutely certain that the land for purchase is single and separate from an adjoining parcel and has not merged by common ownership with an adjoining parcel, the results can be less than desirable.

In a recent case, Harn Food LLC v DeChance, the Second Department upheld the Town of Brookhaven’s Board of Zoning Appeals (“BZA”) decision denying a request to construct two houses on what was contended to be two single and separate vacant undersized parcels joined only at the rear property line and each fronting on it’s own adjacent parallel road.  Lots configured in this manner are also referred to as through lots.

In upholding the BZA’s decision, the Court rejected petitioner’s argument that the two tax lots were single and separate because they shared only a rear lot line thereby allowing one house to be constructed on each lot.  Instead, the Court adopted the BZA’s position that since 1948, the two lots were held in common ownership.  The significance of holding or purchasing adjoining vacant lots in common ownership cannot be minimized.  Under most zoning codes and as interpreted by many courts, holding vacant lots, that are undersized or non-conforming to the minimum zoning requirements, creates a merger of the parcels and defeats any argument that the lots were held in single and separate status.

In this case, even though the two tax lots at issue were not side by side lots, but instead, they were back to back lots, the Court determined that the common ownership since 1948 rendered the lots merged.  Additionally, in weighing the five-factor test set forth in Town Law 267-b(3)(b), the Court relied on a prior denial in 2007 by the BZA of an identical application in the immediate area, together with evidence at the hearing that the proposal set forth did “not conform to the surrounding development pattern, in that only 5 lots (12%) of the 42 improved lots in the area conform to the lot area requested in the application, and only 7 lots (17%) conform to the lot frontage.”

The Court further noted that the buyer was charged with knowledge of the zoning code when the property was purchased.  Given that the vacant land is still suitable to construct one dwelling, the Court determined that a feasible alternative existed and that the petitioner was not so aggrieved.

This case is just one more reminder that land use attorneys and real estate attorneys must work together to insure that properties are purchased in uncommon ownership unless otherwise discussed and affirmatively agreed to be held in common ownership.  Further, vacant land should never be purchased absent a single and separate search with confirmation from the relevant municipality that the vacant land in question meets the test for single and separate and that no merger with adjoining parcel ever occurred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.