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.

A recent decision from the Nassau County Supreme Court, Healy v. Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals, overturned a municipal determination that granted special zoning exceptions and variances to a Greek Orthodox Church located in Merrick, New York. The church wanted to construct a two-story cultural center and related parking next to the church. It applied to the Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals (“Board of Appeals”) for the special exceptions and variances.

Residents in the area opposed the application, claiming the construction would adversely affect the environment. After the Board of Appeals granted the application, the residents sued, claiming that: (1) the hearing was defective; (2) the negative declaration issued under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and affected by an error of law; (3) the Board of Appeals gave excessive deference to the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act; and (4) one member of the Board of Appeals had a conflict of interest.

The Court rejected all of the asserted grounds for reversal except the SEQRA review.  The Court found no defect in the Board of Appeals hearing. It noted that a zoning board of appeals can conduct informal hearings, is not required to use the rules of evidence at such hearings, and is not required to swear in witnesses or cross-examine them. The hearing that was conducted lasted 12 hours, included 16 witnesses in support of the church’s application and 24 witnesses in opposition, and expert testimony.

As to the supposed conflict of interest, one member of the Board of Appeals was the sister-in-law of an attorney who used to represent the church and the managing partner of that lawyer’s law firm was currently the campaign manager for the board member’s estranged husband. The Court rejected that ground, noting that the residents failed to demonstrate that the board member had any pecuniary or material interest in the outcome of the application and she did not cast the deciding vote as the decision was unanimous.

Unfortunately for the church and the Board of Appeals, the Court found the SEQRA review to be woefully inadequate. The Board of Appeals completed a Short Environmental Assessment Form, which identified two concerns – the proposed application would result in a change in the use and intensity of the land and would change the character or quality of the existing neighborhood. The Board of Appeals declared the application an unlisted action under SEQRA. The Board of Appeals adopted a one paragraph resolution declaring that the cultural center would not have a significant effect on the environment. The resolution did not contain any rationale, explanation or articulation of the basis for the SEQRA determination. The Court found this did not meet SEQRA’s “hard look” or “reasoned elaboration” requirements. The Court also ruled that the zoning determination cannot be used as the rationale for the SEQRA determination. As a result, the Court vacated the Board of Appeals decision.

 

In SEQRA parlance, a “Negative Declaration of Environmental Significance”, or “Neg. Dec.”, is a lead agency’s finding that the proposed Type I or Unlisted Action under review will not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts. An applicant whose project receives a Neg. Dec. is spared the (often) considerable time and expense of preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) and the gauntlet of procedural steps that follow a positive declaration. However, a Neg. Dec. must be accompanied by a “reasoned elaboration” of the bases for the determination along with references to supporting documentation in the record. A Neg. Dec. which lacks a reasoned elaboration is invalid on its face, see, e.g., New York City Coal. to End Lead Poisoning, Inc. v. Vallone, 100 N.Y.2d 337 (2003), and reviewing courts will not conduct an independent search of the record to discern the lead agency’s rationale and salvage the determination. See, e.g., Matter of Healy, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 28261, — N.Y.S.3d —- (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2018) (wherein the court commended the lead agency on a thorough SEQRA review, but was constrained nonetheless to set aside the agency’s negative declaration because it did not contain a written reasoned elaboration).

In Vill. of Ballston Spa v. City of Saratoga Springs, 163 A.D.3d 1220, — N.Y.S.3d —- (Decided July 12, 2018), the Third Department struck a careful balance between SEQRA’s rigid “strict compliance” standard and consideration for practical mistakes that sometimes occur when a lead agency moves through the SEQRA process on a particular application. In 2017, the City of Saratoga Springs sought to condemn a stretch of land adjacent to a heavily-trafficked road for the creation of a new pedestrian/bicycle trail. The City Council, as lead agency, classified the project as a Type I Action and completed parts 1 and 2 of a full Environmental Assessment Form (EAF).

Eventually, the City Council adopted a resolution finding that the project would not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts and issued a negative declaration. It was then brought to the Council’s attention that its resolution did not include information explaining the basis for the determination. Two months later, the Council adopted a supplemental resolution reaffirming its Neg. Dec. for the project. This time, the resolution included specific information addressing each potential environmental impact identified in part 2 of the EAF and the Council’s rationale for why those issues would not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts. Opponents of the project challenged the Neg. Dec. contending that the supplemental resolution was not a permitted action under SEQRA.

On Appeal, the Appellate Division found that the City complied with SEQRA’s procedural requirements. In doing so, the Court expressly rejected the petitioners’ argument that the supplemental resolution would have been proper only under one of the enumerated situations set forth in 6 NYCRR 617.7(e) and (f) of the SEQRA regulations, which govern the amendment and rescission of negative declarations. The Court held that while 6 NYCRR 617.7(e) and (f) dictate a lead agency’s response to certain developments following the adoption of a Neg. Dec., those provisions are not exhaustive and do not preclude a lead agency from correcting a mistake in process under other circumstances.

Of particular relevance for the Court were the facts that the Council had conducted an earnest review of the relevant environmental issues; held another public meeting to discuss the contents of the supplemental resolution, and took additional procedural steps before reaffirming its negative declaration for the project. The supplemental resolution was also adopted before the Council took final action to approve the project. The Court observed that, as a practical matter, nullification of the Neg. Dec. would only have resulted in a redundant SEQRA process that would have undoubtedly reached the same conclusion. Thus, the Court ruled that the supplemental resolution was a proper means to correct the omission of the reasoned elaboration from the original Neg. Dec.

The Third Department’s decision in Ballston Spa lends itself to the proposition that a lead agency can, at times, correct the fatal defect of omitting a reasoned elaboration from a negative declaration.  This is not to say, however, that any writing presented after the adoption of a Neg. Dec. will be sufficient.  In Matter of Dawley v. Whitetail 414, LLC, 130 A.D.3d 1570, 14 N.Y.S.3d 854 (4th Dept. 2015) (cited in contrast in Ballston Spa), the Fourth Department ruled that a written attachment presented after the adoption of a negative declaration could not serve as a reasoned elaboration where the respondent town board, serving as the lead agency, never reviewed the attachment and never voted to have it included as a supplement to its negative declaration. See, also, Rochester Eastside Residents for Appropriate Dev., Inc. v. City of Rochester, 150 A.D.3d 1678, 54 N.Y.S.3d 484 (4th Dept. 2017) (also cited in Ballston Spa) holding that a document containing the purported reasoning for the lead agency’s determination, prepared subsequent to the issuance of the negative, did not fulfill the statutory mandate. It is therefore uncertain how another court might rule if presented with a similar set of facts.  Careful and thorough drafting continues to be the best hope of insulating a negative declaration from legal challenge.

If you have questions regarding SEQRA regulations or procedure, please contact me at pbutler@farrellfritz.com.

Earlier this year, the Third Department handed down a surprising upset in the eminent domain arena.  See, Matter of Adirondack Historical Association v Village of Lake Placid, 161 A.D.3d 1256 [3d Dept 2018]The Appellate Division nullified the condemnation because the Village of Lake Placid failed to consider the environmental impact of its use of eminent domain to acquire two vacant parcels of land for the purpose of constructing a parking garage.  The Village’s achilles heel was its failure to take the requisite “hard look” at traffic under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

The Eminent Domain Procedure Law (“EDPL”) is New York’s comprehensive law dictating the procedures that must be followed by the state, municipalities and other entities with the power of eminent domain before any condemnation may take place.  EDPL §207 deals with a judicial challenge to the proposed condemnation after the completion  of the determination.  Within 30 days, an aggrieved party must file a petition in the Appellate Division (not the Supreme Court) where the proposed condemnation is to take place.  EDPL §207(C) further limits the scope of review to, among other things, whether the condemnor’s determination and findings were made in accordance Article 8 of the Environmental Conservation Law (“ECL” aka “SEQRA”).

Here, the acquisition of land by the Village was considered an Unlisted Action, and a short Environmental Assessment Form (“EAF”) was prepared.  As a result, the Village Board was required to review the EAF and the criteria contained in SEQRA to identify the relevant areas of environmental concern.  Pursuant to SEQRA, the Village must thoroughly analyze the identified relevant areas of environmental concern to determine if the action may have a significant adverse impact on the environment, and set forth its determination of significance in a written form containing a reasoned elaboration (6 NYCRR 617.7 [b] ).  Any adverse change in traffic levels, such as the case with developing a parking garage, is a potential area of environmental concern.

During both the public hearing and the written comment period, concerns regarding increased traffic congestion and other potential traffic impacts associated with the proposed condemnation were repeatedly voiced.  Yet, according to the Appellate Division, the record is devoid of any evidence that the Village Board took the requisite hard look at these potential traffic impacts.  Indeed, the only proof of the Village Board’s hard look is the conclusory statement in its resolution that “[t]here is no significant environmental impact that could not be mitigated with reasonable measures.”

In light of this, the Court held that given the Village Board’s failure to set forth a reasoned elaboration for its conclusion that the identified traffic concerns were not significant, the SEQRA findings and determinations made in connection with the condemnation of the subject property were vacated.  Accordingly, the petitioners blocked the Village from seizing the two parcels of land through eminent domain.

This decision reinforces the importance of municipalities taking the “hard look” under SEQRA when contemplating the powerful tool of eminent domain.