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 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.