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.

 

 

The Second Department recently reversed a Suffolk County Supreme Court decision granting a use variance for a mother-daughter residence in the Village of Patchogue (the “Village”), in spite of statements made on the record by the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) Chairman implying prior precedent approving such applications.

In June 2014, the petitioner applied to the Village seeking the conversion of her two-car garage into an apartment for her 81 year old mother of limited financial means.  Unfortunately, Patchogue’s zoning code does not define “mother-daughter” or permit an  “accessory apartment” in its single-family residential zone.  As a result, because such use is prohibited, the petitioner was required to appeal that decision to the ZBA for a use variance pursuant to Village Law 7-712-b(2).

At the public hearing before the ZBA, no one opposed the application, and one neighbor spoke in favor of it.  However, as an apparent precursor to denial, the Chairman stated on the record that “[n]ot many [such applications] have been granted at all.”  Not surprisingly, the ZBA denied petitioner’s application to convert her two-car garage into living space.

The petitioner subsequently commenced an Article 78 to annul the ZBA’s decision as arbitrary and capricious.  The Chairman’s statement later became the focal point for petitioner’s argument that prior alleged precedent effectively mandated the ZBA approve petitioner’s garage conversion.

Later that year, the Supreme Court annulled the ZBA’s denial as arbitrary and capricious for failing to follow its own precedent.  See Gray v Village of Patchogue Zoning Board of AppealsIn its decision, the Supreme Court incorrectly implemented the balancing test for an area variance instead of a use variance.  The court appeared to rest its decision heavily on an implied prior precedent based on the Chairman’s above quoted statement.  Based on that statement, the lower court constrained the ZBA to grant the garage conversion, holding that “administrative due process prohibits inconsistent treatment of similarly situated properties”.  Id.

In reversing the Supreme Court’s decision, the Second Department clarified that petitioner’s application was for a use variance.   See Gray v Village of Patchogue Zoning Board of Appeals, 164 AD3d 587 [2d Dept 2018].  The Appellate Division affirmed the ZBA’s denial because the petitioner had failed to satisfy the more onerous “unnecessary hardship” element required for a use variance.   More importantly, the Appellate Division determined that there was no evidence that the ZBA failed to adhere to prior precedent.  Contrary to the petitioner’s contention, the Board provided a rational explanation for reaching a different result.

Accordingly, this decision should serve as a cautionary tale for applicants and practitioners to not place too much stock on prior approvals by municipal boards.  Although precedent is important, each property is different and may yield a different result.

 

 

In April 2006, the Town of Huntington adopted a local law (Local Law 14-2006) that added § 198-27(A)(22) to its Zoning Code. That local law allows apartments on the top floors of some mixed-used buildings in its C6 General Business District, where the ground floor is occupied by a permitted commercial use. While the code provides certain restrictions on these upstairs apartments, such as no upper floor can exceed the footprint of the ground floor and the mixed used building must meet all height, area and bulk requirements, these limitations are not enough for some residents. They contend that the zoning allows too many apartments to be piled on top of a commercial establishment, resulting in over-development, traffic, pollution, loss of open space and other adverse impacts.

At the May 1, 2018 Huntington Town Board meeting, a petition signed by almost 1000 residents was presented to the board, demanding that the board hold a public hearing to revoke or significantly limit the number of apartments. Some of the proponents of this change noted at the meeting that Huntington “was becoming Queens” as a result of the 2006 local law. Several of the speakers pointedly reminded the Supervisor of statements he made during his campaign, to preserve the suburban nature of the Town. This grass-roots effort to change the zoning code may be having an impact on the Town Board.

The Supervisor reportedly asked the town’s planning department to review the C6 zoning provision in an effort to strike a balance between encouraging business development while at the same time preserving the quaint nature of the town. Once the planning department completes its review and issues its recommendation, the Town Board will then decide whether to hold a public hearing to change the zoning code. Stay tuned.

In April of 2016 we published the blog entitled “Mining in the Hamptons: Appellate Division Affirms Town of Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals Limitations on Pre-existing Nonconforming Uses Associated with Hamptons Mining Operation.” Despite the Appellate Division’s decision regarding certain pre-existing nonconforming uses occurring on the site, Sand Land Corporation’s (“Sandland”) pre-existing mining use of the property was never at issue, until now.

In January 2018, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) issued a determination entitled “Ruling of the Chief Administrative Law Judge on Threshold Procedural Issue, January 26, 2018” essentially halting the DEC’s review of Sandland’s mining permit application until further information was submitted by the Town of Southampton. Sandland, was authorized pursuant to a Mined Land Reclamation Law (MLRL) permit issued by the DEC to mine sand and gravel from 31.5 acres of the 50 acre site to a depth of 160 feet above mean sea level, which is 60 feet below the surface elevation at 220 feet. In January of 2014, Sandland submitted an application to the DEC to expand its current permit to mine 4.9 additional acres and excavate the floor of the mine to 120 feet above mean sea level- lowering the mine floor by 40 feet. The DEC notified the applicant that a permit modification to expand the mine “beyond its previously approved life of mine boundaries” was considered a “new application”, classified as a “major project” and required a statement that mining was not prohibited at the site.

NYS Environmental Conservation Law (“ECL”) §23-2703, Declaration of Public Policy, Subsection 3 states, “No agency of this state shall consider an application for a permit to mine as complete or process such application for a permit to mine pursuant to this title, within counties with a population of one million or more which draws its primary source of drinking water for a majority of county residents from a designated sole source aquifer, if local zoning laws or ordinances prohibit mining uses within the area proposed to be mined.” Suffolk County satisfies this criteria having a population of one million or more and drawing its primary source of drinking water from a sole source aquifer. Opponents of Sandlands’ application argued that because mining is prohibited in the zoning district where the property is located, ECL §23-2703 (3) applies and the DEC is prohibited from processing the application.

ECL §23-2711(3) requires that the DEC notify the Town’s “Chief Administrative Officer” for properties not previously permitted pursuant to that title and seek input regarding whether mining is permitted on site.[1] The Town responded with a letter noting the Certificate of Occupancy authorizing mining on site but noted that if the DEC was characterizing this as a new mine, that new mines are prohibited in all zoning districts.[2] The Town further noted the location of the property in the Aquifer Protection Overlay District and requested that the reclamation of the property be expedited to allow the property to be used for conforming residential purposes. However, the Town did acknowledge that “certain nonconforming uses, if they are established to pre-exist zoning, are allowed to continue and even expand under certain circumstances pursuant to Town Code §330-167B”.

Additionally, the Town Code provides for the continuance of nonconforming uses pursuant to §330-115 which states, “Any lawful use occupying any building, structure, lot or land at the time of the effective date of this chapter or any amendment thereto which does not comply after the effective date of this chapter or any amendment thereto with the use regulations of the district in which it is situated may be continued in the building or structure or upon the lot or land so occupied, except as provided in § 330-119.”[3]

The DEC held a hearing where the applicant argued that the application only sought renewal of an existing permit for a lawful preexisting nonconforming use. Ultimately, however the DEC Administrative Law Judge held that ECL § 23-2703(3) prohibits the DEC from processing mining permits for mines located in towns such as the Town of Southampton, Suffolk County, where the county, with a population of over one million people, draws its primary drinking water for a majority of its residents from a designated sole source aquifer, and the town has a local law prohibiting mining in the town. Additionally, the Administrative Law Judge found that Sandland had not established that the proposed mine expansion was authorized under the Town’s local zoning laws. The reviewing Judge adjourned the matter pending submission of proof adequate to establish that applicant’s proposed mine expansion is authorized under the Town’s local law.

As determined by the New York State Court of Appeals, a prior nonconforming use for mining is unique in that it is not limited solely to the land that was actually excavated before the enactment of a restrictive zoning law (in this case, March 27, 1983) but extends well beyond.[4] The well-known Court of Appeals case, Syracuse Aggregate, established that pre-existing mining rights extend to the boundaries of the property regardless of whether that specific area was mined prior to the change in the zoning law. In examining the nature of mining as a nonconforming use the Court stated:

“By its very nature, quarrying involves a unique use of land. As opposed to other nonconforming uses in which the land is merely incidental to the activities conducted upon it, quarrying contemplates the excavation and sale of the corpus of the land itself as a resource. Depending on customer needs, the land will be gradually excavated in order to supply the various grades of sand and gravel demanded. Thus as a matter of practicality as well as economic necessity, a quarry operator will not excavate his entire parcel of land at once, but will leave areas in reserve, virtually untouched until they are actually needed.” [5]

In furtherance of this premise, the Court of Appeals in Buffalo Crushed Stone extended that holding to properties purchased in contemplation of mining that are separate and apart from the original mined parcel.[6] The Court stated,

“Consequently, a prior nonconforming use for quarrying cannot be limited solely to the land that was actually excavated before the zoning law, because-in this unique type of industry- landowners commonly leave portions of their land as mineral reserves to be excavated at a future time.[7]   Mine owners commonly leave portions of their land as mineral reserves to be excavated at a future time.”[8]

The question remains, then, how this administrative court essentially halted the continuation of this “unique” mining operation that pre-exists zoning via the DEC permitting process without applying or even considering this well-established line of Court of Appeals cases.  Indeed, the reviewing Administrative Law Judge did cite the Syracuse Aggregate case but only for the following premise: “A town’s authority includes not only the power to prohibit the development of new mines ( see id. at 684), but to impose reasonable restrictions limiting the expansion of and eventually extinguishing prior nonconforming mining uses within the town (See Matter of Sand Land Corp. , 137 AD3d at 1291-1292; Matter of Syracuse Aggregate Corp. v Weise , 51 NY2d 278, 287 [1980] Matter of 550 Halstead Corp. v Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Town/Vil. of Harrison , 1 NY3d 561, 562 [2003] [Because nonconforming uses are viewed as detrimental to zoning schemes, public policy favors their reasonable restriction and eventual elimination.]).”

However, the Judge failed to take notice of the Court of Appeals holding in Gernatt Asphalt Products, Inc. v. Town of Sardinia, 87 N.Y.2d 668, 642 N.Y.S.2d 164, 664 N.E.2d 1226 (1996), upholding a zoning law banning mining except for preexisting operations. “Towns may not directly regulate mining, but they retain the power to zone — even to zone out mining totally, as long as non-conforming uses are protected, as the Constitution mandates, to prevent a de facto taking.” See McKinney’s Practice Commentaries to NYS Environmental Conservation Law 23-2703 , Philip Weinberg (emphasis added).

Procedurally, Sandland’s mine permit expires in November of 2018. The matter was appealed administratively in a motion to reargue, a second hearing took place and we look forward to the Administrative Law Judge’s ruling.

 

[1] ECL §23-2711(3) further states,(a) The chief administrative officer may make a determination, and notify the department and applicant, in regard to: (i) appropriate setbacks from property boundaries or public thoroughfare rights-of-way, (ii) manmade or natural barriers designed to restrict access if needed, and, if affirmative, the type, length, height and location thereof, (iii) the control of dust, (iv) hours of operation, and (v) whether mining is prohibited at that location. Any determination made by a local government hereunder shall be accompanied by supporting documentation justifying the particular determinations on an individual basis.

[2] Mining effectively became prohibited in the Town of Southampton on March 27, 1981. See Huntington Ready Mix-Concrete Inc. v. Town of Southampton et al., 104 A.D.2d 499 (1984).

[3] Town Code § 330-119, Compulsory termination of nonconforming uses, bars, taverns and nightclubs, addresses the amortization of pre-existing nonconforming nightclubs.

[4] Syracuse Aggregate Corp. v. Weise, 51 N.Y.2d 278, 434 N.Y.S.2d 150 (1980); Buffalo Crushed Stone, Inc. v. Town of Cheektowaga, 13 N.Y.3d 88, 885 N.Y.S.2d 913 (2009)(stating “quarrying contemplates a gradual unearthing of the minerals in the land, as so excavation of portions of the land may be sufficient to manifest an intention to conduct quarrying on the property as a whole.”)

[5] Id. at 285, 434 N.Y.S.2d 150 (citations omitted).

[6] Buffalo Crushed Stone, Inc., 13 N.Y.3d 88, 885 N.Y.S.2d 913 (2009)(confirming the mining company had the vested pre-existing right to mine a separate parcel, “subparcel 5” which was not mined by its predecessors and separated by a road from the larger mined area.)

[7] Id. at 401.

 

[8] Id. at 396 stating, (“we hold that the long and exclusive quarrying operation of BCS and its predecessors and their preparations to use areas left as aggregate mineral reserves, consistent with the nature of quarrying, established a right of prior nonconforming usage on the disputed subparcels”).

In the Matter of 278, LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of East Hampton et al., dated March 21, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department upheld East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeal’s (“ZBA”) decision denying a natural resources special permit (“NRSP”) for two parallel 762 linear feet walls built without a permit by Ron Baron (hereinafter “Petitioner”) on his oceanfront property located at 278 Further Lane, East Hampton New York. Petitioner owns two additional, improved properties adjacent to 278 Further Lane, which is vacant. In September 2008, Petitioner built two parallel walls approximately four feet apart consisting of 762 linear feet along the southerly border of its property and continuing along a portion of the easterly border of 278 Further Lane. In response, in 2009 the Town of East Hampton issued citations alleging that the walls were constructed in violation of the Town Code because Petitioner failed to obtain an NRSP from the ZBA, a building permit and/or certificate of occupancy prior to constructing the walls. As part of a settlement agreement, Petitioner removed portions of the walls and submitted an application to the ZBA.

Petitioner made an application to the Chief Building Inspector in April 2010, questioning the limit of NRSP jurisdiction over the walls. By letter dated April 13, 2012, the Building Inspector determined that a “substantial portion of the wall was constructed in a location containing dune land/beach vegetation” and would require an NRSP prior to the issuance of a building permit. Petitioner appealed that determination to the ZBA, requested an NRSP and sought a variance for the accessory structures to remain on the property where there was no principal structure. The ZBA upheld the Building Inspector’s determination and found that an NRSP was required for the walls prior to the issuance of the Building Permit, denied Petitioner’s request for an NRSP, and held that since the NRSP was denied, the application for the variance for the accessory structure was rendered academic.

Petitioner commenced an Article 78 proceeding, seeking to annul the ZBA determination. The Supreme Court denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding, remanding the matter back to the ZBA for further proceedings to determine whether any variances were needed regarding the construction of the walls. Petitioner appealed; and the Appellate Division, Second Department held that the ZBA determination requiring an NRSP had a rational basis, was not arbitrary and capricious, and there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the determination. The Court stated, “petitioner failed to demonstrate that the retaining walls were erected in conformance with the conditions imposed (see Town Code §§255-4-40, 255-5-51).  Since the petitioner, which erected the retaining walls prior to obtaining any permits failed to request a lot inspection by the Town prior to construction and failed to sufficiently document preexisting conditions, the ZBA had to rely on expert testimony to ascertain the conditions in the area prior to construction Its decision to rely on the conclusions of its experts rather than the conflicting testimony of petitioner’s expert did not render its determination arbitrary, capricious, or lacking in a rational basis…” The Court overturned that portion of the Supreme Court decision, remitting the matter back to the ZBA.  The ZBA found the entire wall required an NRSP, confirming that the request for a variance for an accessory structure was academic.

Obtaining an NRSP in East Hampton Town is no small matter.   NRSP applications are regulated under four separate sections in the East Hampton Town Code:

  1. §255-1-11 “Purposes”- General Purposes for Zoning Code requires compliance with applicable sections A through M;
  2. §255-5-40 “General Standards”- General Standards for Special Permits requires compliance with sections A through M;
  3. §255-4-10 “Purposes of Article”- requires compliance with sections A through E, General Purposes for the Protection of Natural Resources; and
  4. §255-5-51 “Specific Standards”- requires compliance with sections A through K, Specific Standards and Safeguards for Natural Resources Special Permit.

Given the number of standards with which an applicant must comply to obtain this special permit, it is never surprising when an application for an NRSP is denied. It is even understandable that Petitioner constructed the walls (provided they were not greater than four feet) without permits, given an initial reading of Town Code §255-11-38 , Fences and Walls, which states, “the following regulations shall apply to all fences and walls in all districts unless otherwise indicated: A. Building permits. The erection, enlargement, alteration or removal of the following types of fences and walls shall require a building permit: (1) A fence or wall greater than four feet in height and located within the required front yard area of any lot; (2) A fence or wall over six feet in height, in any location; (3) Any fence or wall for which site plan approval is required.”  Considering the outcome of this case, however, Petitioner would have been better served making an application to the Town before constructing the walls.

 

By letter dated November 24, 2009, the Town of Riverhead’s Building Department Administrator provided that the docks, bulkheaded structures, commercial oyster operation, and six summer rental cottages were legal pre-existing nonconforming uses of the property at 28 Whites Lane, on Reeves Creek, Aquebogue NY (“subject property”). The subject property is owned by John and Sandra Reeves, hereinafter the “Respondents”. The Petitioners, neighbors of the subject property, appealed this determination to the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) which rendered a decision sustaining the November 24, 2009 letter. The Petitioners challenged the ZBA’s determination in an article 78 proceeding, Matter of Andes v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Riverhead, John Reeve et al. Supreme Court, Suffolk Co. Index No. 10-27305, April 8, 2013. The Supreme Court annulled the ZBA’s decision and remitted the matter back to the ZBA citing that the ZBA decision “contained no independent factual findings supporting this determination.”

The ZBA reheard the matter on June 23, 2016. By decision dated August 11, 2016, the ZBA again sustained the November 24, 2009 letter as to the pre-existing nonconforming uses on the property. This time, however, the ZBA’s record was replete with factual findings in support of its determination.

The Town of Riverhead first adopted its zoning code in 1959. Several zoning amendments were made throughout the years, rendering the different uses of the subject property nonconforming at different times. [1]    The ZBA considered testimony from numerous sources establishing the continuing pre-existing nonconforming uses and structures on the subject property. For example, with regard to the shellfish operation, Robert E. White, the son of Washington White, testified at the July 23, 2009 ZBA hearing that his family purchased the property in the 1930’s and that it was used for a shellfish operation which was continued by his brother Benjamin White. He further submitted that the “underwater property” was purchased by the Lessard family in the 1990’s who “continued the operation.” David Lessard testified that he continued the commercial shellfish operation to the present day.  The ZBA made further findings, sustained in part by similar testimonial evidence, supporting the pre-existing nonconforming summer cottages and marina uses.  Ultimately, the ZBA upheld the November 24, 2009 Building Department Administrator letter once again.

The neighbors challenged this ZBA determination in a second article 78 proceeding entitled Matter of Andes v. Zoning Board of Appeal of Town of Riverhead et al., Sup. Ct. Suffolk Co., Index No. 16-8742, December 15, 2017.

Petitioners argued that (i) the Respondents failed to provide business records to corroborate the continuance of the marina or commercial oyster operation, (ii) the commercial oyster operation was run without the proper shell-fishing permits, (iii) the marina structures were not completed until 2008, and (iv) the basin where the shellfish operation took place had non-functional bulkheading and required dredging to be operational during the time periods they were claimed to be in use, among others. Notably, Petitioners alleged that the majority of the evidence relied upon by the ZBA was based on the testimony of Respondents, the Reeves, and their primary witnesses who Petitioners argued were “town insiders” since they worked for the Town of Riverhead.

The Court reviewed the evidence considered and findings made by the ZBA in its decision and held that the ZBA decision was rational and not arbitrary and capricious. The Court set forth the standard of review for pre-existing nonconforming uses and restated the long-standing legal principle that a court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the board. Petitioners clearly wanted the Court to weigh the value of the evidence relied upon by the ZBA; however, the Court stated:

Here, it cannot be said that the Zoning Board’s decision lacks evidentiary support in the record; that the nature of the evidence relied on by the Zoning Board is almost entirely testimonial is of no consequence for purposes of this analysis (see Town of Ithaca v Hull, 174 AD2d 911,571 NYS2d 609 [1991]). Likewise, while the court is sensitive to the implication of the petitioners’ claim that the Zoning Board discredited their proof in favor of the affidavits and hearing testimony of “insiders,” i.e., the Reeves and “their friends,” it remains constrained by the limited scope of review afforded in article 78 proceedings, particularly absent proof of actual bias or favoritism. The court also rejects the petitioners’ implicit claim that judicial review of a zoning board’s determination requires some kind of comparative analysis of the quality and quantity of the evidence adduced in support of and in opposition to an application. A court may not weigh the evidence or reject the choice made by the board where the evidence is conflicting and room for choice exists (Matter of Toys “R” Us v Silva, supra). Even to the extent it has been held that a board’s determination must be supported by “substantial evidence,” a court need only decide whether the record contains sufficient evidence to support the rationality of the board’s determination (Matter of Sasso v Osgood, 86 NY2d 374,633 NYS2d 259 r1995J; Matter of Slonim v Town of E. Hampton Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 119 AD3d 699, 988 NYS2d 890 [2014]. lv denied 26 NY3d 915, 23 NYS3d 641 [2015]) (emphasis added).

 As to the petitioners’ claim that the Reeves failed to sustain their “high” burden of persuasion, the court notes that this standard applies only to a matter before a municipal officer or board and not to a judicial proceeding; it bears repeating that the scope of judicial review of a zoning board’s determination is limited to an examination of whether the determination has a rational basis, even when that determination involves an application to establish or certify a prior conforming use (e.g. Matter of Keller v Haller supra; Matter of Watral v Scheyer, 223 AD2d 711, 637 NYS2d 431 [1996]). Whether, as the petitioners further contend, the Reeves lacked the necessary permits, certificates, and approvals to operate a marina on the property until the new docks and bulkheading were constructed and completed in 2008, or whether the Lessards did not have shellfish diggers permits from 1994 through 1997 so they could not have lawfully been using the Reeves’ property for that purpose during that time, is largely irrelevant.

Ultimately, the Court upheld the ZBAs determination affirming the Building Department Administrator’s letter; the petition was denied and the proceeding dismissed. Given that the matter has been an issue before the Town of Riverhead since 2003 and the Court since 2010, it is not surprising that Petitioners filed a notice of appeal.


[1] In 1959 with the first enactment of zoning, Riverhead Town rendered the commercial oyster operation on the property a preexisting nonconforming use. The six cottages became pre-existing nonconforming in September 1970 when the Town of Riverhead amended the zoning code definition of Marina Resort to exclude summer cottages. In 2004, the Town re-zoned the property to RB-40, eliminating marinas as permitted uses rendering the marina use, docks and bulkheading on-site nonconforming. Additionally, Riverhead Town Code §301-222(C) provides that a nonconforming use may not be reestablished “where such nonconforming use has been discontinued for a period of one year.”

In 2009, Scenic Development, LLC (“Scenic”) sought a zone change for the property formerly known as the “Patrick Farm” located in the Town of Ramapo to permit the development of multi-family housing. In three determinations adopted January 25, 2010, the Town Board resolved to (i) approve a findings statement pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) for the proposed zone change, (ii) amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow for the zone change, and (iii) approve the zone change. The Town’s determinations have led to a series of cases challenging these decisions, with three recent decisions discussed below.

Scenic purchased the property in 2001.  The underlying zoning of the property was R-80 when Scenic purchased the property and was subsequently changed to R-40, or one house per 40,000 square feet, when the Town adopted its 2004 Comprehensive Plan. In 2009, when it sought the zone change, Scenic proposed to build 479 housing units on 197 acres of the former farm along the Route 202/306 corridor outside Pomona. Therefore, the zone change would have dramatically increased the density permitted on the property.

Although the project still has not come to fruition, with some additional environmental review as discussed below, the project may still be viable.

Youngewirth v. Town Board of Ramapo

In Matter of Youngewirth v. Town of Ramapo Town Board et al., decided November 8, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department reversed the Supreme Court’s, May 8, 2013 determination which denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. The appellate court annulled the determinations of the Town Board and remitted the matter back to the Town Board for further proceedings consistent with the decision. Specifically, the Court found that the Town Board did not take the requisite “hard look” pursuant to SEQRA because of its (i) failure to review the environmental impact of the proposed development in close proximity to the existing Columbia Natural Gas Pipeline, (ii) failure to consider the combined impact of the development and pipeline on the environment, (iii) failure to list Columbia Gas as an “interested agency” pursuant to SEQRA, and (iv) failure to make a “reasoned elaboration” for the basis of its determination regarding this issue by not mentioning the potential impacts in its FEIS or findings statement.

The Court, however, sided with the Town on petitioner’s claim that the zone change was in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan and found that petitioner failed to establish a clear conflict with the Comprehensive Plan. The Court also found that petitioner failed to establish that the zone change constituted impermissible spot zoning. The Court further noted that requiring a certain number of affordable housing units was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and was a reasonable condition related to and incidental to the property. However, because the Court found that the approval for the findings statement pursuant to SEQRA was required prior to amending the Comprehensive Plan or granting the proposed zone change, the annulment of the resolution approving the SEQRA findings statement required the annulment of the determinations regarding the Comprehensive Plan and proposed zone change.   Ultimately, the Court remitted the matter back to the Town Board for preparation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“SEIS”) to consider the issues related to the gas pipeline.

Shapiro v. Ramapo Planning Board

In the related case of Matter of Shapiro v. Planning Board of Town of Ramapo et al., decided November 8, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department likewise annulled the Supreme Court’s determinations and remitted the matter back to the Planning Board for further review consistent with its decision.  The Planning Board approved Scenic’s three separate applications for final subdivision and site plan approval of three housing projects as part of Scenic’s proposed development of the property.  Here, petitioner alleged that a SEIS was required in connection with the SEQRA review conducted for the proposed development because the applicant, Scenic, failed to obtain a jurisdictional determination from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (“ACOE”) validating the delineation of wetlands on the property. The Court outlined that a lead agency’s determination whether to require an SEIS is discretionary. Specifically, SEQRA in section 6 NYCRR 617.9(a)(7(ii) provides, “the lead agency may require a supplemental EIS limited to the specific adverse environmental impacts not addressed or inadequately addressed in the EIS that arise from (a) changes proposed for the project, (b) newly discovered information, or (c) a change in circumstances related to the project”. Here, petitioners alleged that the Planning Board failed to consider newly discovered information having received a letter indicating that the ACOE reviewed the development plans but not the wetlands delineation. The applicant was required to obtain the ACOE’s jurisdictional wetlands delineation and the Planning Board was required to rely on the ACOE’s federal wetland delineation since wetlands were excluded in part from the yield calculations related to the proposed development. Thus the Court found that the Planning Board failed to take the requisite hard look pursuant to SEQRA and remitted the matter back to the Board for the preparation of an SEIS regarding the presence of wetlands on the property.

Village of Pomona v. Town of Ramapo

The neighboring Village of Pomona also sued the Town Board and Planning Board of Ramapo in two separate actions in which the Supreme Court denied the petitions and dismissed the proceedings. On November 8, 2017, The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed these determinations related to the Scenic proposal as well in Village of Pomona v. Town of Ramapo et al. Here, although the Court found that the Town of Ramapo adequately considered the effect of the proposed development on community character and complied with General Municipal Law §239-m(3) by providing a point-by-point response to the Village’s comments on the application, the Court determined that the lower court should have granted the Village’s petition based on the reasons stated in the Youngewirth decision referenced above.

In all, there have been approximately ten challenges over the years related to the Town of Ramapo’s approvals of Scenic’s proposed development. Although the local land preservation groups claim the recent court decisions as a total win, the Appellate Division made significant findings in support of the Town of Ramapo’s review and reversed the Supreme Court’s determinations on very specific grounds, which, if addressed correctly by the Town, could result in the multi-family development being built.

 

 

A recent decision by the Appellate Division decided that a village zoning code was inapplicable to a water district. As a result, the water district was able to proceed with replacement of one of its massive elevated water storage tanks and the village was powerless to use its zoning powers to either stop the construction or impose restrictions on the structure.

The case, Incorporated Village of Munsey Park v Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, 57 NY3d 154 [2d Dep’t 2017], involved a special district located within the Town of North Hempstead. The special district, the Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, supplies potable water to consumers located within the district’s boundaries. The water district uses its elevated water storage tanks to store water and maintain water pressure. One of the district’s storage tanks is on property owned by the water district that is located within the boundaries of the Village of Munsey Park (“Village”).

The elevated water storage tank in question was built in 1929. The water district determined it was in need of replacement in 2014. The water district developed a plan to replace the 1929 storage tank and held two public hearings about its proposal. Village officials participated in these public hearings. The district revised the plan after the public hearings, partly to accommodate concerns of the Village and Village residents elicited at the hearings.

The finalized plan called for the replacement of the 1929 storage tank with a new tank that would hold 250,000 gallons more than the 1929 tank. In addition, an antennae was proposed to be installed on the new tank to facilitate wireless communication between the district facilities, its employees, and volunteer firemen. The water district determined that the proposed construction plan was immune from the Village zoning code, based upon the principles enumerated in Matter of County of Monroe (City of Rochester), 533 NY 2d 702 [1988].

The Village sued. It sought a declaratory judgment and permanent injunction to prevent the demolition of the 1929 tank and construction of the replacement tank, claiming that the 30 foot height restriction contained in the Village zoning code would be violated by this structure. The trial court ruled in favor of the water district, a finding that was affirmed by the Second Department.

The appellate court discussed the City of Monroe case, in which the Court of Appeals dealt with the applicability of a local zoning code where two governmental entities are in conflict over a proposed project. The Court of Appeals set forth a balancing test in that case to determine if there is immunity from the local zoning code for the other governmental entity. These factors include: (1) the nature and scope of the governmental entity seeking immunity from the local zoning code, (2) the type of zoning restriction involved, (3) the extent of the public interest served by the local zoning code, (4) the effect that the local zoning code would have on the other governmental entity, and (5) the impact on local interests.

Using this balancing test, the Second Department determined that the water district was immune from the Village zoning code. The court further noted that the Village failed to set forth any basis for the Village’s contention that the Village had the exclusive right to evaluate the factors and make this immunity determination.

One other note. The water district  also determined that the project was a Type II action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and, thus, not subject to review under SEQRA. This finding was upheld by the trial and appellate courts. The Second Department explained that since the project involved the “replacement, rehabilitation or reconstruction of a structure or facility, in kind,” it was a Type II action under 6 NYCRR § 617.5[c][2], even though it was going to hold 250,000 more gallons than the 1929 tank.

Because of the essential service at issue in this case, the provision of a safe and reliable source of potable water, it is understandable why the courts would favor the water district over a height restriction in a local zoning code.  If the project involved something less vital, the result may have been different.

Last month, the Appellate Division, Second Department, issued two interesting opinions concerning parking. One involved a parking variance and the other involved a restrictive covenant.

Here are the details!

No Parking

In Bonefish Grill, LLC v Zoning Board of Appeals of the Village of Rockville Centre, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 006643 [2d Dept September 27, 2017], a restaurant leased property at 340 Sunrise Highway. It was going to demolish an existing structure and replace it with a 5,400 square foot restaurant. The Village Zoning Code required 54 off-street parking spaces for the proposed restaurant. It had none.

The same landlord owned the adjoining property, 330 Sunrise Highway. The restaurant tenant proposed a merger of the two lots in order to take advantage of an exception in the Village Zoning Code that essentially allowed a municipal lot to substitute for the off-street parking for “interior restaurants that abut municipal parking fields.” The 330 Sunrise Highway parcel abutted a municipal parking lot, 340 Sunrise Highway did not.

A building permit was issued for the restaurant based on the merger representation. Just as the construction was nearing completion, the Building Department learned the merger of the two parcels never occurred. The Building Department refused to issue a certificate of occupancy until the restaurant obtained a parking variance. The restaurant entered into a license agreement that gave it access to 40 exclusive parking spaces next door from 4 PM to 12:30 AM weekdays. The parking variance was granted by the zoning board but the board imposed restrictions on the restaurant’s operating hours, tying them to the hours in the license agreement. It also required mandatory valet parking. The restaurant was unhappy with these restrictions and sued.

Although the restaurant prevailed at the trial level, it lost at the appellate court, which found that limiting the hours of operations to coincide with its access to the 40 parking spaces was proper. The restriction was aimed at protecting surrounding businesses and the expected increase in traffic congestion and parking problems.

Parking

In Fleetwood Chateau Owners Corp., v Fleetwood Garage Corp., 2017 NY Slip Op. 06431 [2d Dept September 13, 2017], the owner of an apartment building sued a commercial parking garage located on an adjoining parcel to enforce a restrictive covenant contained in a 1924 deed. That restrictive covenant prohibited the construction of nonresidential structures including garages unless the garages were for the exclusive use of occupants of any building built on the property.

In 1929, an apartment building was built on one part of the property. In 1931, a private parking garage was built on another part of the property. The entire site was sold at least twice after that. When the entire site was sold in 1988, the deed failed to mention the 1924 restrictive covenant.

The next purchaser subdivided the property. In 1990, the apartment building portion of the property was sold to Fleetwood Chateau Owners Corp. In 1991, the parking garage portion of the property was sold to Fleetwood Garage Corp. which intended to use it as a commercial parking garage.  Neither of these deeds referenced the 1924 restrictive covenant. Neither Fleetwood entity was a party to the 1924 deed nor mentioned in it as a beneficiary.

The Court noted that restrictive covenants, which place restraints on servient properties in favor of dominant parcels, are strictly construed against parties seeking to enforce them as they encumber the use of real property. The Court further noted that since it was not a party to the 1924 deed and was not mentioned in the deed as a beneficiary, Fleetwood Chateau Owners Corp. had to demonstrate the existence of a common plan or scheme of building development in order to enforce the restrictive covenant.

The Court found that there was no common development plan created for the owners of the subdivided lots.   The Court found no evidence that in 1924, when the land was sold as one parcel, that there was any obligation to subdivide the site. As a result, the Court found that “the covenant cannot be said to have benefitted any part of the land burdened by it.” The Court reasoned that the common grantor to the Fleetwood entities had owned the entire site and was free to do whatever it chose with the property except as against the 1924 grantee who had placed the restriction in the 1924 deed or those that “stood in his shoes.” As the Fleetwood entities solely derived their interest from the 1990/1991 grantee, and their deeds did not contain any restrictive covenant, “the original covenant is not enforceable as between” them. As a result, Fleetwood Chateau Owners Corp. had no standing to enforce the covenant and the parking garage was able to continue operating.

Measuring the height of a structure may seem straightforward in the abstract, but sometimes in practice that is not the case. Take, for instance, a recent Southampton Town Zoning Board application – Matter of the Application of Hermann – where the height of a house was the subject of a challenge in front of the Zoning Board.

During construction of a residential dwelling, several stop work orders were issued and lifted based upon evidence submitted to the Building Inspector from different surveyors attempting to determine the height of the single family dwelling. Mostly the argument surrounded an interpretation of the term “average natural grade”, which is the point of measurement on the ground in Southampton. This case was complicated by two factors. First, the property was disturbed from the construction of a prior dwelling demolished to make way for the new dwelling. During the demolition the grade was lowered to accommodate a larger basement. Second, there was a ten foot change in slope from one side of the house to the other.

SOUTHAMPTON TOWN ZONING CODE

Southampton Town Zoning Code provides specific guidance for measuring the height of a structure in §330-5 “Definitions” which defines “Height of a Structure”. Section B of that definition states:

“In all other cases, the vertical distance measured from the average natural elevation of the existing natural grade (before any fill has been or is proposed to be placed thereon) as established on a plan prepared by a licensed professional surveyor, at and along the side of the building or structure fronting on the nearest street to the highest point of the highest roof or, in the case of a structure, to the highest point. On all flag lots and lots utilizing a right-of-way, the flagpole access or right-of-way shall be considered the street front.” (Emphasis added)

So, the challenge to the property owner was twofold:

  1. Determine a reasonable methodology to establish “average natural grade” on a previously disturbed lot; and
  2. Apply that methodology to a property that contained a significant slope.

PRIOR ZONING BOARD DECISIONS

Fortunately, the Zoning Board had decided two previous cases involving height variances that centered on determining average natural grade. In the Matter of the Application of Schwartz, the Board initially observed that determining the average natural grade of a parcel of property was an inexact science. Next, the Board determined that using spot elevation data and the Topographic Map of the Five Eastern Towns was a reasonable methodology in determining average natural grade. Finally, the Board determined that a single measurement or data point along a building line was insufficient and that at least two data points must be used to determine average natural grade which would then be the basis on which to measure height.

Approximately a year and a half later, the Zoning Board decided a similar application, the Matter of the Application of Rubin. In Rubin, the Board followed Schwartz by making these findings:

  • Measuring contours and topography is an inexact science.
  • Site specific topographical data is the most accurate piece of information necessary to determine average natural grade.
  • Interpolation of data derived from survey maps and site-specific topographical data is a reasonable way to determine grade issues.

STANDARD

Applying the findings in Schwartz and Rubin, site-specific elevation data combined with the most recent contour mapping available will allow a licensed surveyor to determine contour lines and use these contour lines to determine height.

APPLICATION TO HERMANN

The property owner in Hermann engaged a surveyor who used the following data to determine average natural grade:

  • 1956 Topographical Map prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard
  • 1973 Photographs of Original Foundation under Construction
  • 1974 Five Eastern Towns Topographical Map
  • Actual field data
  • 2007 LiDAR Contour Map
  • 2012 LiDAR Contour Map
  • Field Observation of Surrounding Topography of adjacent lot
  • 2015 Under Construction Photographs of the Current Foundation
  • Actual Height Measurement

Using that information, the surveyor made a determination that the house exceeded the permitted height, and the property owner had to obtain a variance. The request for relief was significantly less than that alleged by the neighbor, and the variance request was ultimately granted. In the Hermann decision, the Board found that the methodology used by the property owner’s surveyor to be the most meaningful and likely accurate because it incorporated the above data.

CONCLUSION

To determine the height of a building – at least in Southampton – a surveyor must consider all of the data available, especially when the property is already disturbed. It is also suggested that a property owner or surveyor provide the Building Inspector with the methodology used to determine average natural grade in advance of construction, so violations of height restriction are avoided.