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.


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.