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.

On October 17, 2018, the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department (“Second Department”) issued two (2) companion decisions arising out of three different attempts by Petitioners, Kleinknechts (“Petitioners”)  to construct a dock at their waterfront property.  Each of the attempts resulted in a Supreme Court litigation.  As we blog about these cases today, no dock has been constructed despite a directive in 2013 that a permit be issued upon submission of the proper application!

In the first matter, the Second Department upheld a decision of the Village of Lloyd Harbor’s Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) denying certain variances requested by Petitioners to construct a dock along their waterfront property finding that the ZBA properly applied the five-factor test set forth in Village Law 7-712-b(3).  Further,  Petitioners’ expert testified that he had prepared an alternative completely code compliant plan.  Since a code compliant dock plan provided a reasonable alternative for Petitioners to explore, the Second Department upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the underlying Article 78 proceeding stating that the “need” for the variances was self-created.  In light of the ZBA’s proper application of Village Law, the ZBA’s denial was not arbitrary or capricious.  See, Kleinknecht v. Brogan, 2018 WL 5020285 (Oct. 17, 2018)

In the second matter, and following denial of the above-mentioned variance application, the Appellate Division vacated a 2013 directive to the Building Inspector requiring the Building Inspector to issue a building permit to Petitioners for the alternative code compliant dock permit application.  The Second Department stated “[m]andamus . . . is an extraordinary remedy that, by definition, is available only in limited circumstances.”  “A party seeking mandamus must show a ‘clear legal right’ to [the] relief [requested]'”  Here, no clear legal right existed.  See, Kleinknecht v. Siino, 2018 WL 5020282 (2018).

Prior to 2013, Petitioners’ property was subject to an open space easement precluding construction of a dock at the property.  Petitioners commenced an action seeking to have the open space easement extinguished.  The trial court issued a judgment holding that the open space easement was no longer necessary and directed that the Building Inspector issue a building permit to Petitioners upon submission of the “required” application.  The Village did not appeal the judgment.

As such, upon submission of a code compliant building permit application (as noted above an application for variances was denied and upheld), Petitioners sought an approved building permit.  Although the Second Department held that the Building Inspector had no basis to deny issuing the permit based on the existence of the open space easement, the Second Department did vacate the 2013 trial court directive to issue a permit upon submission of the “required” application stating that the Village Code requires every Village building permit application be referred to the “Site and Building Permit Review Board” (“Review Board”).  Finding that the trial court’s directive to the Building Inspector bypassed a necessary referral step to the Review Board, the Second Department ordered the Building Inspector to refer Petitioners’ application to the Review Board.   The Second Department did not then direct the Building Inspector to issue a building permit to Petitioners if the Review Board approves that application..

Instead, the Second Department decision states “[t]he Building Inspector may issue a building permit only upon approval by the” Review Board.  As a litigation and land use attorney,  it has become painfully apparent that courts do not always weigh the import of the language used when crafting relief for the parties.   Maybe it is of little consequence that the Second Department said that the Building Inspector “may” approve the building permit if approved by the Review Board.  However, it would  provide the Petitioners, and their attorney(s), greater comfort and certainty if the chosen words were “must” approve the building permit, instead of “may” approve the building permit.

 

The generally accepted practice in towns and villages throughout New York is that public and private schools need not comply with the zoning rules applicable to other property owners.  However, the Appellate Division, Third Department, recently issued a decision, in Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District v Town of Bethlehem, that clarified that zoning laws do apply to schools, except in very specific circumstances.

The case arose when the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District asked the Town of Bethlehem whether any local law prohibited it from replacing an existing traditional sign at one of its elementary schools with an electronic message board sign. Although the Town responded that electronic signs were expressly prohibited under its zoning laws, the District nevertheless applied for a permit to install the sign.  After the sign permit was denied, the District proceeded to install the sign claiming that, as a public school, it was not subject to the Town’s zoning requirements.

The District also appealed the Town’s sign permit denial by seeking a variance from the Town’s zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”). After the ZBA denied the District’s application for a variance, the District filed a hybrid CPLR Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action seeking, among other things, a declaration that it was immune from the Town’s zoning law.

The Albany County Supreme Court rejected the District’s immunity argument, dismissed the petition, and directed that the District remove the electronic sign. The District appealed.

The Third Department affirmed, concluding that although schools enjoyed some immunity from zoning regulations, that immunity was “not so broad and absolute” as the District contended.  The Court explained that, the legislature has charged the New York State Education Department and local boards of education with the management and control of educational affairs and public schools, and some courts have interpreted this mandate as the State reserving unto itself the control over and the authority to regulate all school matters. The Court went on to say, however, that some of these courts had misinterpreted prior decisions to extend a full exemption from zoning ordinances where it was not warranted.”

According to the Court in Bethlehem, reliance on cases granting schools immunity from all zoning regulations was misplaced, given the Court of Appeals decision in Cornell University v Bagnardi. In Bagnardi, the Court noted that, historically, schools have enjoyed “special treatment with respect to residential zoning ordinances” because “schools, public, parochial and private, by their very nature, singularly serve the public’s welfare and morals.  The Court, however, also noted that there were “many instances in which a particular educational or religious use may actually detract from the public’s health, safety, welfare or morals [and, i]n those instances, the institution may be properly denied.”  To clarify its prior rulings, the Court in Bagnardi held that the presumed beneficial effects of schools and churches “may be rebutted with evidence of a significant impact on traffic congestion, property values, municipal services and the like,” because the “inherent beneficial effects … must be weighed against their potential for harming the community.”

The Third Department ultimately concluded that the District was not immune from and, therefore, was subject to the Town’s zoning ordinances.  Next, it addressed whether the ZBA had properly denied the District’s application for a variance. With respect to the BZA determination, the Court found that the ZBA had provided “rational reasons” for its determination, including a concern for traffic safety due to the sign’s brightness and potential to be more distracting and hazardous to passing motorists than an ordinary sign.

The Bethlehem decision makes clear that despite the special treatment afforded schools by the law, they are not entitled to a full exemption from zoning rules, and local governments are not powerless to apply their zoning laws to educational institutions.

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 opposing Crossroad Ventures, LLC’s (“Crossroad Ventures“) endeavor to construct a vacation resort partially within the Town of Shandaken, (“Town“), grassroots preservation organization Catskill Heritage Alliance, Inc. (“Alliance“) commenced two consecutive Article 78 proceedings challenging certain approvals.  The Court addressed multiple appeals from both proceedings in Catskill Heritage Alliance, Inc. v. Crossroads Ventures, LLC, et al., 161 A.D.3d 1413 (3d Dep’t 2018).  In its opinion, the Court reinforced the principle that a board of appeals is the sole interpreter of its ordinance and that interpretations by other boards or bodies may be fatal to municipal approvals and determinations.

In this case, the Town’s zoning ordinance allowed a resort with a special permit and site plan approval from the Town Planning Board (“Planning Board“).  However, the ordinance did not define “Vacation Resort.” In 2000, Crossroads Ventures requested an interpretation and definition of the term to determine what uses are allowed as part of a resort. The Town Zoning Board of Appeals (“Zoning Board“) responded to the request by analogizing a vacation resort to a hotel, motel or lodge development and determined the term included all uses integral to the hotel, motel or lodge development and clearly accessory to it, as well as other uses allowed in the area, either as of right or by permission. After receiving the interpretation, Crossroads Ventures undertook a prolonged environmental review and developed a plan for the resort: two hotels, a conference center, community centers and additional lodging scattered among several duplexes and multiple unit buildings.

In 2013, towards the end of its environmental review, Crossroads Ventures made an application to the Planning Board for a special permit and site plan approval. The Planning Board issued the special permit and conditionally approved the site plan. The Alliance commenced its first Article 78 proceeding challenging these determinations. The Supreme Court, Ulster County, issued a decision in October 2016 denying Crossroad Venture’s motion to dismiss and granting the Alliance’s petition, in part. The Court found that, although the Planning Board properly determined that non-habitational structures fell within the clear definition of permissible accessory uses to the resort, it improperly resolved an ambiguity in the ordinance as to whether detached duplexes and multiple unit buildings were permitted uses in the area. Accordingly, the Court annulled the determinations and remitted the matter to the Zoning Board to address the propriety of residential structures. The parties appealed the October 2016 decision.

On remittal, the Zoning Board interpreted the ordinance and clarified that detached residential units were permitted “lodges.” Thereafter, the Planning Board, again, granted Crossroads Ventures’ application, issued a special permit and conditionally approved the site plan. The Alliance commenced its second Article 78 proceeding challenging both the Zoning Board’s interpretation and the latest Planning Board approvals. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition by decision dated July 2017 and the Alliance appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department, decided both appeals. With respect to the October 2016 decision, the appellate Court affirmed both the denial of the motion to dismiss and the granting of the petition, in part. The Court noted that zoning boards of appeals are the bodies with the authority to interpret ordinances – not planning boards. To the extent any ambiguities exist in the pertinent ordinance, a planning board must request an interpretation thereof from its board of appeals. In 2000, the Zoning Board interpreted the “Vacation Resort” term to include conference centers and community centers as integral, accessory uses, but it did not opine on detached duplexes and multiple-unit buildings. This was problematic because the latter structures are habitations and could be viewed either as permitted lodges or as new multifamily dwellings prohibited under the ordinance affecting the project area. The Planning Board should have requested another interpretation from the Zoning Board, rather than resolving the ambiguity itself. Therefore, the appeals Court affirmed the lower Court’s October 2016 decision to annul the Planning Board’s approvals for the resort and to remit the issue to the Zoning Board.

Next, the appeals Court reviewed the July 2017 decision. This later decision addressed both the Zoning Board’s interpretation of the duplexes and multiple-unit buildings and the Planning Board’s subsequent (second set of) approvals. The appeals Court found the Zoning Board’s interpretation deserved deference because it was not a purely legal interpretation – it was rendered upon the facts of Crossroads Ventures’ proposal. The Town ordinance defined “multiple dwellings” as structures within three or more dwelling units, but stated that rooms in a boardinghouse, dormitory, motel, inn or other similar building do not constitute dwelling units. Although the Town ordinance did not define the term “lodge,” the Zoning Board noted that a lodge is commonly defined as a transient residence, such as an inn or similar building having rooms that are excluded from the ordinance’s definition of dwelling unit. Ultimately, the permanence of residency was determinative.

The Zoning Board concluded that a lodge includes structures containing one or more units of lodging and sleeping accommodations for transient occupancy in connection with the special permitted use of a hotel, lodge development or vacation resort held under common ownership – so long as the users had primary residence elsewhere. And, the Zoning Board determined that the proposed structures at the resort were intended for transient occupancy, as rentals or timeshares; therefore, these were permitted lodges, as opposed to prohibited new multifamily dwellings. The Court found this interpretation to be rational. The Court also found that the Planning Board, relying upon the Zoning Board’s 2000 and 2017 valid interpretations, rationally determined to issue the special permit and conditional site plan approval for the resort. Therefore, the Court affirmed the July 2017 decision.

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.