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 Joy Builders, Inc. v. Town of Clarkstown, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 07110, 165 A.D.3d 1084 (2d Dept 2018), a developer (“Developer”), in connection with the development of two subdivisions, challenged a provision of the Town Code of the Town of Clarkstown (“Town”) which authorized the Town to withhold the issuance of building permits for a subdivision until the applicant/owner has completed the requisite infrastructure and improvements and dedicated the same to the Town.  The Supreme Court, Rockland County, denied the Developer’s motion for summary judgment and the Developer appealed.  The Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed and declared the Town Code provision null void and struck the subdivision conditions affected by that provision.

With respect to the Developer’s projects, the Town Planning Board had approved two subdivisions of 22-lots and 55-lots, respectively.  The approvals contained a condition requiring the Developer to build certain infrastructure and post performance bonds for each project.  Town Code Section 254-18B authorized the Town to withhold the issuance of building permits for 10% of the lots of each subdivision until the Developer completed and dedicated the infrastructure and improvements.  The basis of the “holdback” was to ensure that applicants/owners complete the requisite work.  During construction, the Town relied upon the holdback provision and withheld the issuance of buildings permits for three lots in one subdivision and six in the other.  The Developer, then, commenced this action challenging the Town’s withholding and seeking a declaration that Section 254-18B was null and void.

The Appellate Division noted that towns and municipalities lack the inherent power to enact zoning or land use regulations – rather, they are creatures of statute.  As such, towns may only engage the powers conferred by the State Legislature.  The pertinent statute, Town Law Section 277(9) authorizes the Town to obtain enumerated forms of security in order to ensure the full cost of infrastructure and improvements in the event a developer abandons a project.  However, withholding the issuance of building permits is not among these.  The Court determined that Town Law Section 277 does not expressly authorized the holdback and no such authority can be implied.  Therefore, Town Code Section 254-18B was inconsistent with the Town Law and the Town does not have the power to withhold building permits to provide financial security for the completion of work.

The Court declared Section 254-18B void and struck the conditions of withholding. The Court’s ruling reaffirms strict adherence to the enumerated powers for municipalities in the land use and zoning context.

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.

 

 

New York State Town Law § 277(9) authorizes a town Planning Board to require a developer to provide a performance bond or other security covering the cost of installation of subdivision infrastructure and improvements in case the developer fails to finish the required work. Specifically, Town Law §277(9) states: “[a]s an alternative to the installation of infrastructure and improvements, as above . . . prior to planning board approval, a performance bond or other security sufficient to cover the full cost of the same, as estimated by the planning board or a town department designated by the planning board to make such estimate . . . shall be furnished to the town by the owner.”

On October 24, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department explored the extent of this enabling legislation in the case of Joy Builders Inc. v. Town of Clarkson.  In Joy Builders v. Town of Clarkson, Joy Builders was developing two subdivisions approved by the Planning Board; a 22 lot subdivision called Highland Vista Estates and a 55 lot subdivision called Little Tor Subdivision.  Both subdivisions were approved by the Planning Board with the condition that Joy Builders would build the infrastructure required for each one including roads, curbs, sidewalks, street signs, light poles and monuments. Joy Builders was required to post performance bonds for each subdivision pursuant to New York State Town Law §277(9).  Additionally, the Town of Clarkson had enacted Town Code §254-18B which authorized the Town to withhold the issuance of building permits for 10% of each subdivision until Joy Builders had completed the required infrastructure improvements. The enactment of this law was the Town’s effort to ensure that the required infrastructure work would be completed.

Specifically, Town Code §254-18B stated:  “Ten-percent restriction of building permits pending dedication of improvements in subdivisions.  Building permits shall be restricted, in accordance with the map note per §254-29B of this chapter, to footings, foundations and utilities only on 10% or one of the structures or dwelling units, whichever is greater, in each subdivision until all required improvements have been completed to the satisfaction of the Department of Environmental Control and shall have been dedicated to the town, unless waived by the Planning Board.”

In response to having Town Code §254-18B imposed, Joy Builders brought a declaratory judgement action against the Town seeking a judgment that the Town Code provision was null and void as ultra vires. The Supreme Court denied Joy Builder’s motion for summary judgement on the complaint, and Joy Builders appealed. The Appellate Division reviewed the enabling authority set forth in Town Law §277 and reversed the Supreme Court’s determination.

The Court stated: “[h]ere, a plain reading of Town Law § 277 establishes that (1) it has no express provision authorizing the Lot Holdback Provision set forth in Town Code § 254-18B, (2) pursuant to the rules of statutory construction, the express provisions of Town Law § 277 must be construed to exclude provisions such as those in Town Code § 254-18B which are not contained in § 277 (see Walker v Town of Hempstead, 84 NY2d 360, 367), and (3) it has no provision from which the Lot Holdback Provision of Town Code § 254-18B can be implied (see Matter of Gruber [New York City Dept. Of Personnel—Sweeney], 89 NY2d 225, 234; Matter of Webster Cent. School Dist. v Public Empl. Relations Bd. of State of N.Y., 75 NY2d 619, 627). Thus, Town Code § 254-18B is inconsistent with the plain language of Town Law § 277(9), which expressly sets forth the manner in which a developer can be required to provide financial security to ensure the completion of the installation of required infrastructure and other mandatory improvements.”

Since the matter was a declaratory judgment action, the Court remitted the matter back to the Supreme Court for the entry of a judgment declaring that Town Code §254-18 was null and void as ultra vires and that the conditions imposed on Joy Builders arising out of that Town Code section were also null and void.

 


It turns out, according to the Supreme Court, Orange County, that the standards for review of municipal contracts are noticeably less stringent for New York Village Boards than for Town Boards.  Village Boards may approve a contract in principal, allowing the Mayor some room for further negotiation and language changes.  Town Boards must review and approve the actual, final contract; and the Supervisor may not refine or sign any other contract.  That was the Court’s analysis in Guazzoni v. Village of Tuxedo Park, ____ N.Y.S.3d ____, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 28177, 2018 WL 2946114 (Sup. Ct., Orange Co. 6/12/2018).

 

The Trustees of the Village of Tuxedo Park passed a resolution that the Village enter into a consulting agreement with an outside Consultant.  (The Court’s opinion does not disclose the nature of the consulting.)  The Board’s resolution states that the contract was to be “substantially” in the form reviewed by the Trustees, “together with such changes as may be reviewed by counsel and approved by the Mayor” and one of the Trustees.  The Mayor then signed a contract under which the consultant was paid approximately $5,371 per month and an additional sum of $800 per month for costs or reasons not discussed in the opinion.

Plaintiffs were not happy with the contract – again, for unspecified reasons.  They brought an action claiming that the Mayor had not been authorized to enter into the contract as it was finally drafted and signed after review and modification by counsel (presumably the Village Attorney), the Mayor and the single Trustee specified by the Board.

The Court held that a Village Board did not have to approve the final contract.  The Court recognized that statutory restrictions on a municipality’s power to contract serve the purpose of protecting the public from “corrupt or ill-considered actions of municipal officials.”  However, it was sufficient that the Trustees had authorized the Mayor to sign a contract that was substantially like the terms the Trustees had reviewed.

The Court relied on NY Village Law §4-412(1)(a) which defines the general powers of Village Trustees as, broadly speaking, the “management of village property and finances.”  The Village Law does not specify the manner in which village contracts must be made, and there is “no express statutory provision requiring village boards to approve contracts in their entirety before their execution by the mayor.”

In contrast, NY Town Law §64 defines the powers and duties of Town Boards and states that a Town Board “may award contracts” to “be executed by the supervisor in the name of the town after approval by the town board.”  Therefore, says this opinion, a Town Board must approve the exact contract with all details before the Supervisor can sign it – but Village Boards may approve the substance of a deal with a municipal contractor; and the Mayor may sign any contract that does not change the substance approved by the Trustees.

It was not strictly necessary for the Court to construe Town Law §64 to decide the village case before it – although the analysis is certainly interesting.  The lack of any detail of how the final contract negotiated by the Mayor and one of the Trustees differed from the substance approved by the Trustees is also intriguing.  Without that information it is difficult to know why the plaintiffs were concerned enough to bring an action challenging the contract and, more importantly, how this recent case may affect future municipal contracts.

Since the Court ultimately did not dismiss the complaint because the record was insufficient, the case will continue; and there might be further lessons to learn.  The lesson for now is that it is crucial to review the procedure by which contracts are adopted if your client is the municipality or a citizen challenging the municipality’s contracts.

 

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.

Yes, it’s true- the New York State Legislature has proposed legislation specifically designed to provide Towns, Villages and Cities with the authority to not only regulate, but to ban, all retail establishments which present a standardized branded marketing concept!

During the 2013-2014 Legislative Session, Legislative Bill S01771/A01216 was introduced for consideration by the New York State Legislature seeking to amend Town Law 261, Village Law 7-703 and General City Law 81 to specifically empower Towns, Villages and Cities to effectively “zone” out what the Legislature terms “Formula Retail Uses” on the basis that such retail establishments threaten communities across the state by eroding resources such as historic character, aesthetics, unique community character and commercial diversity by creating a sameness in design that destroys a communities identity.

“Formula Retail Uses” is defined in the pending legislation as a “retail sales establishment which, along with ten or more other retail sales establishments located in the United States, maintains two or more of the following features: “A standardized array of merchandise, a standardized façade, a standardized décor and color scheme, a uniform apparel, standardized signage, a trademark or a service mark.” Now, that’s comprehensive!  As I said, no more Prada, Kohl’s or Wal-Mart for sure.  But what about CVS, Walgreens, Stop-n-Shop, Hess Convenience Marts, AT & T stores, Verizon stores and dare I say, Apple stores?

I was immediately intrigued by this proposal because the term “Formula Retail Use” is not a land use term that is easily recognizable in the State of New York.  A comprehensive case law analysis of recent New York decisions confirms that the term “Formula Retail Use” is likewise not so popular.  Then why you might ask would the New York State Legislature offer this Bill for consideration?  Absent insider information, one can only surmise that a fairly recent Eleventh Circuit Florida Court of Appeals case, followed by a very recent 2012 Fourth Department New York State case are the source.

In Cachia v. Islamorada, 542 F.3d 839 consolidated with Island Silver & Spice, Inc. v. Islamorada, 542 F.3d 844 (11th Cir. Fla. 2008 en banc), the parties were engaged in hotly contested litigations arising from Islamorada Village’s adoption of local zoning ordinance 02-02 prohibiting formula restaurant[s] and limiting the size of formula retail establishments.  As a result of the Ordinance, plaintiff Cachia was unable to conclude the sale of his property to Starbucks despite a firm letter of intent to purchase and plaintiff Island Silver & Spice, Inc. was unable to conclude the negotiated sale of its property to Walgreens for $2,650,000.

In reversing the trial court, the Eleventh Circuit, en banc, held that not only did a violation of the dormant commerce clause exist, but also, that the Ordinance did not simply raise the costs of operating a formula restaurant or retail establishment in Islamorada, it entirely prohibited such businesses from opening.  As a result, a heightened level of scrutiny was applied and the Court concluded that the Ordinance served as an “explicit barrier” to the presence of national chain restaurants and retail establishments.  The Court further found that the Ordinance impermissibly prohibited establishments that operated “under the same name, trademark, menu, or style.”

In July 2012, the State of New York Appellate Division, Fourth Department, determined that a Village of Victor, Ontario County, local zoning ordinance prohibiting “formula fast food” restaurants in its Central Business District was constitutional.  In Mead Square Commons, LLC v. Village of Victor,  97 A.D.3d 1162 (4th Dept. 2012), the Fourth Department was precise in stating that the Ordinance was limited to a specific zoning district and that “plaintiff failed to preserve for our review any contention that there is no rational basis for distinguishing” between formula fast food restaurants and non-formula fast food restaurants in the Central Business District.  Id. at 1164.  The implication is clear that the Village of Victor ordinance survived only because the most favorable arguments were not advanced on appeal.

Given the clear pronouncement against severe restrictions or prohibitions against what has been termed “formula” retail establishments, why would the New York State Legislature seek to amend Town, Village and General City Law enabling the outright ban of these establishments?  Your guess is as good as mine.

The Bill is presently pending before the Local Government Section of the Legislature and is being advanced by a majority of downstate New York Members, including Senator LaValle and Assembly Members Thiele, Raia and Schimel  specifically representing Nassau and Suffolk Counties.