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.

 

 

At its December 5, 2017 meeting, the Town Board of the Town of Southold (“Town Board”) was hit with a tidal wave of opposition to changes the Board was considering to the Town’s Zoning Code with respect to wineries. The proposed changes would have modified §280-13A(4) and §280-13C(10) of the Town Zoning Code. After a five-hour public hearing, the Town Board unanimously withdrew the proposal.

Opponents of the proposal used social media to get the word out about the public hearing, and Town Hall was packed with these folks on the hearing date. Perhaps the Town Board should have taken a cue from that and used social media, including the Town’s website, to explain in advance why they were proposing these changes, who would be affected, and encouraging residents who supported the proposal to attend the public hearing.

The proposed changes were aimed at five zoning districts; namely the Agricultural-Conservation District, Residential Low-Density District R-80, Residential Low-Density District R-120, Residential Low-Density District R-200, and Residential Low-Density District R-400. These proposed changes were not applicable to other zoning districts where wineries are also permitted, such as the Limited Business District.

The existing provisions of §280-13A set forth the permitted uses in these five zoning districts. Subsection 4 applies to wineries and lists the standards applicable to that use in these districts. These include: (a) the winery must “be a place or premises on which wine made from primarily Long Island grapes is produced and sold;” (b) the winery must “be on a parcel on which at least 10 acres are devoted to vineyard or other agricultural purposes, and which is owned by the winery owner;” (c) the winery structures are required to “be set back a minimum of 100 feet from a major road;” and (d) the winery needs to have site plan approval.

The proposed changes to §280-13A would have required: (a) that the wine be “produced, processed and sold” at the winery, which wine had to be made from grapes “of which at least 80% are grown on the premises or other land owned by the winery owner;” (b) the winery must be on a parcel where a minimum of “10 acres are devoted to the growing of wine grapes” and which is owned by the winery owner;” and (c) the 10 acres devoted to growing grapes are in addition to land on which structures are located. No changes to the set back and site plan approval provisions were proposed.

The existing provisions of §280-13C set forth the accessory uses. Subsection 10 applies to wineries. That subsection states that a winery “may have an accessory gift shop on the premises which may sell items accessory to wine, such as corkscrews, wine glasses, decanters, items for the storage and display of wine, books on winemaking and the region and nonspecific items bearing the insignia of the winery.” The subsection also states that a winery “may not have a commercial kitchen as an accessory use but may have a noncommercial kitchen facility for private use by the employees.”

The proposed changes to §280-13C(10) changed the “accessory gift shop” to a “retail gift shop” with the same limitation on the type of merchandise that could be offered. In addition, the proposed changes required that the wine be made on the parcel and permitted 20% of the wine sold at a winery to be from other Long Island wineries. No change was made to the kitchen limitations.

The packed house of opponents described the proposal as “anti-farming” or “overly restrictive.” Farmers who grow grapes for sale to wineries they do not own claimed that the proposal would put them out of business. Some opponents stated that the proposal would be the death-knell to new wineries, which would be unable to make any money while their vines matured over several growing seasons. Others were concerned that natural disasters could wipe out a portion of their crops, and that if they bought grapes elsewhere to replace their damaged crops, they would be in violation of the proposed changes.

The Town Supervisor indicated that the Town Board would go back to the drawing board and reconsider the proposal. Whether the Town Board can come up with a proposal that will not be met with similar opposition is uncertain.

shutterstock_637510813On April 25, 2017, the Southold Town Board adopted Local Law No. 5 of 2017, which amends the Town’s Zoning Code as it relates to agricultural uses. Specifically, the local law amends and adds certain definitions to the Code in recognition of the changes in modern farm operations. The changes are also consistent with the expanded definitions of agriculture found in New York State’s Agriculture and Markets Law.

The new law broadens the scope of agricultural practices by adding several definitions, including those for agriculture, agricultural production, agricultural processing, farm operations, farmhouses, processed agricultural product and on-farm operation direct marketing.  These changes expand agricultural practices beyond the growing of crops and raising of livestock and will allow farmers to process their crops and other agricultural products onsite and market them for sale, much like vineyards that make wine on their properties. Such processed agricultural products include jams, jellies, cheeses, potato chips, jerkies, meats, fowl, fish, breads and baked goods, beer, wine and distilled alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Farmers will also be allowed to sell their processed agricultural products directly to consumers from within buildings constructed on the farm for the purpose of marketing their products.  The law even allows non-farmers to sell home grown fruits, vegetables or plants to the general public from a “roadside stand,” which is defined as a display area that is less than 100 square feet in size located on the same parcel where the products are grown.

According to Chris Baiz, the chairman of the Southold Agricultural Advisory Committee and a fourth-generation farmer, the high cost of land requires farmers to achieve greater cash flows in order to operate successfully.  These new changes should help local farmers realize more income from their lands by allowing them to process and market value-added products from within their operations.

yellow-garbage-bagsA Suffolk Supreme Court Justice has upheld Southold Town’s “yellow bag” law which requires residents to place refuse in Town issued yellow garbage bags.   Proceeds from the sale of the yellow bags are used to operate a transfer station located in Cutchogue.

In March 2012, Go-Green Sanitation, a garbage carter, was hauled into Justice Court by the Town for operating without the proper permit and for failing to comply with the yellow bag law. The Town also obtained a short-lived restraining order from Suffolk County Supreme Court prohibiting the private carter from collecting trash from its residents not contained in the required yellow bags.

In response to the Town’s claims,  and without opposition from the Town, in July 2012, Go-Green removed the state court action to federal court alleging five counterclaims, including: (1) that the Town violated its due process rights by effectively barring it from conducting business in the Town; (2) that Go-Green did not dispose of its trash at the Cutchogue transfer station, as such, it should not be subject to the yellow bag fees and (3) the yellow bag fees constituted  an illegal user fee or tax and as a result thereof,  Go-Green sought to add an additional Southold Town resident defendant in an effort to establish a taxpayer claim against the Town.

On June 12, 2015, in a well-reasoned fifteen (15) page opinion, Eastern District Court Judge Arthur Spatt,  declined to exercise federal jurisdiction over Go-Green’s  counterclaims holding (1) that Go-Green failed to plead and/or establish a federal claim and (2) although Go-Green alleged that it envisioned filing an amended pleading to assert a proper party and proper taxpayer claim;  the Court noted that the pleading before the court, did not, in fact, contain a proper party or a properly pled taxpayer claim.   As such, the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and the matter was remanded back to State Supreme Court for a final determination.

On remand, in a recent July 2016 decision,  Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley, Jr., found that the Town’s controversial law bears a reasonable relation to the public good as it was enacted to promote recycling.   Judge Baisley further found that the Town did not exceed its authority because the yellow bag law is not an illegal tax.  So, for now, and perhaps until a properly pled taxpayer action is asserted, residents and carers alike should refer to the Town of Southold’s website to determine what their respective yellow bags fees will be.

 

Crown Point neighborhood signsUsing Airbnb and similar web-based short-term rental services that enable homeowners to rent out their homes has become popular with budget-conscious travelers.  However, a growing number of municipalities believe that such transient rentals threaten the residential character and quality of life in the neighborhoods in which they occur and have adopted laws to regulate short-term rentals in their communities.

For instance, in August 2015, the Town of Southold adopted a local law banning “transient rental properties,” which are defined as dwellings that are rented out for a period of less than 14 nights at a time.  Under the law, rentals are presumed illegal if they are advertised on websites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VBRO.  This presumption can be rebutted by presenting evidence to the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer demonstrating that the residence is not a transient rental property.  Violators face fines from $1,500 to $8,000 for a first offense, and from $3,000 to $15,000 for conviction of a second or subsequent offense within 18 months.

Proponents of Southold’s law claimed that homeowners who were offering their homes for short-term rental were essentially operating commercial businesses in residential neighborhoods that created quality of life issues for other residents.  Some residents also claimed these short-term rentals enjoyed a competitive advantage over local hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, which are subject to regulations that short-term rentals are not.  Opponents of the law argued that the Town Board failed to recognize the importance of short-term rentals, not only to North Fork homeowners who rely on the additional income, but also to the area’s tourism industry, which they claim suffers from a lack of traditional lodging.

In the first challenges to the law, an attorney representing a number of homeowners who had been advertising their homes for short-term rentals is claiming that his clients’ actions are “grandfathered” under the Town Code’s provisions which deal with “non-conforming uses” – uses that legally existed prior to the passage of the new legislation.  On March 25, 2016, two applications were filed with the Town’s zoning board of appeals seeking relief from the law.

While all sides will be monitoring these challenges closely, it is unlikely that the law’s validity will be decided at the zoning board of appeals level because the board’s decisions are likely to be challenged in a court of law.

Stay tuned, because as this year’s summer vacation season rapidly approaches, this East End hot-button topic will undoubtedly get hotter.