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.

 

Several Long Island municipalities have local laws that peg the issuance of certain building permits to a requirement that contractors and subcontractors be participants in a “qualified apprenticeship program” that is registered and approved by the New York State Department of Labor. While these provisions are often entitled “safe and code compliant construction” and may be perceived as fostering apprenticeship programs for building construction trades, many contractors on Long Island disagree.

They see these provisions as having nothing to do with safety or compliance. They point out that many of these codes do not require that apprentices work on the project or that the selected contractor even employ such apprentices. Rather, all that is required is that the contractor have a collective bargaining agreement with a union that has a qualified apprenticeship program. They contend that these code provisions are aimed at ensuring that contractors affiliated with certain unions get the jobs by prohibiting non-unionized contractors or unionized contractors with affiliated unions that do not meet the qualified apprenticeship program requirement from getting building permits. And they further argue that these provisions add significant costs to the price of construction.

A recent decision by a federal judge may be changing that. But first, a sampling of codes provisions on Long Island that require qualified apprenticeship programs for building permits.

Town of Huntington

Section 87-55.1 of the Huntington Town Code provides that prior to the issuance of “building permits for the construction of commercial buildings of at least one hundred thousand (100,000) square feet,” applicants must “demonstrate that any general contractor, contractor or subcontractor for such project, must have apprenticeship agreements appropriate for the type and scope of work to be performed, which have been registered with, and approved by, the New York State Commissioner of Labor in accordance with Article 23 of the New York Labor Law.”

Town of Brookhaven

Section 16-3.1 of the Brookhaven Town Code requires that prior to the issuance of  “foundation permits and building permits for the construction of a building located in commercial and industrial zoning districts where the square footage of the footprint is 100,000 square feet or greater” and prior to the issuance of building permits for “an addition to an existing building located in commercial and industrial zoning districts when such addition is 100,000 square feet or greater,” that the applicant “demonstrate that any general contractor, contractor or subcontractor for such project participates in an approved apprenticeship training program(s) appropriate for the type and scope of work to be performed, that has been registered with, and approved by, the New York State Department of Labor in accordance with Article 23 of the New York Labor Law.”

Under Brookhaven’s code provision, unless an existing building has a certificate of occupancy or its equivalent, the square footage of the existing building is included in the calculation of the 100,000 square foot threshold.

Town of North Hempstead

Section 24-68 of the North Hempstead Town Code provides the following. “Every contractor or subcontractor who is a party to, or working under, a construction contract with the Town shall be a participant in good standing in a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the DOL and shall have in place apprenticeship agreements that specifically identify or pertain to the trade(s) and/or job title(s) called for within the construction contract.”

Section 2-9.1 of the North Hempstead Code requires that prior to issuance of a building permit for a “large commercial project,” the applicant must demonstrate that “any general contractor, contractor or subcontractor for such project is a participant in good standing in a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the DOL and has apprenticeship agreements, which are specifically identified as pertaining to the trade(s) and/or job title(s) called for by such project.”

A “large commercial project” is defined as “[t]he erection, construction, enlargement, alteration, removal, improvement, renovation, demolition or conversion of a commercial building or structure where such erection, construction, enlargement, alteration, removal, improvement, renovation, demolition or conversion involves an area of 100,000 square feet or more of floor area. The threshold of 100,000 square feet may be met either in a single building or a collection of buildings located on the same property.”

City of Long Beach

Section 7-48 of the City of Long Beach Code of Ordinances covers apprenticeship requirements. It provides that “as a condition precedent for, the issuance of all building permits…for construction of buildings of at least 100,000 square feet…any contractor or subcontractor, who is a party to, or working under, a construction contract, [must] be a participant in good standing of a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the New York State Department of Labor and to have apprenticeship agreements…which have been registered with, and approved by, the New York State Commissioner of Labor in accordance with Article 23 of the New York Labor Law.”

Town of Oyster Bay

Section 93-16.3 of the Town of Oyster Bay Town Code requires that any contractor or subcontractor who is performing construction on any “structures used for purposes other than private one- or two-family residences, and shall include, without limitation, buildings used for offices, retail or wholesale stores, warehouses, schools, and public buildings” shall “be a participant in good standing of a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the New York State Department of Labor and to have apprenticeship agreements, as evidenced by valid D.O.L. certificates of completion which are specifically identified as pertaining to the trade(s) and/or job title(s) necessary for said construction project.”

Sections 93-16.1 and 93-16.2 apply this provision to buildings of 100,000 square feet or more, and have other refinements to that 100,000 square foot threshold.

 Legal Challenge to Oyster Bay Provision

A legal challenge to Oyster Bay’s provisions is pending in the federal court in Central Islip. That case is entitled Hartcorn Plumbing and Heating, Inc. v Town of Oyster Bay.  Plaintiffs contend that Oyster Bay’s code is unconstitutional as it applies not just to contracts that the Town is a party to or funds, but also applies to wholly private contracts.

On February 7, 2018, Judge Hurley issued a preliminary injunction, enjoining the Town of Oyster Bay from enforcing Town Code 93-16.3, with respect to any contract that the Town of Oyster Bay is not a “direct or indirect party.” As a result, at least for now, projects that do not involve the Town of Oyster Bay as a party to the contract or are not funded by the town can get building permits without demonstrating that their contractors participate in “qualified apprenticeship programs.” Whether that ruling is ultimately upheld as the case proceeds is unknown, but it may result in other municipalities reexamining their code provisions voluntarily or as a result of similar court challenges.

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 2014, the New York State Legislature enacted a significant amendment to the Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) reducing setbacks required to discharge a long bow in the lawful act of hunting from 500 feet to 150 feet from occupied buildings and public places.  ECL11-0931(2).  This created a ripple effect in many Long Island municipalities that previously codified the State’s regulation of 500-feet.  For example, the Town of Smithtown still maintains a local law requiring a 500-foot setback, which now conflicts with the State’s 2014 150-foot setback requirement.

The question now becomes whether New York’s preemption doctrine prevents municipalities from maintaining local laws conflicting with State law.  In this case, can the Town of Smithtown maintain its 500-foot setback for the discharge of a long bow as opposed to the State’s 150-foot setback?

Some would say that the State occupies the field of hunting, because it declared title to the wildlife in its sovereign capacity for the benefit of all the people (ECL 11-0105). Consequently, hunting the State’s wildlife is regulated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) ECL Title 7.

However, the State also provided municipalities broad latitude to regulate themselves through the Municipal Home Rule Law (MHR).  MHR confers on local governments the authority to adopt laws for, among other things, the protection of health, safety and welfare, to the extent they are not inconsistent with either the State Constitution or any other State law. MHR 10(1)(ii).

In DJI Restaurant v City of New York , the Court of Appeals explained the two ways State law preempts local laws as follows: (1) where an express conflict exists between State and local law (conflict preemption) and (2) where the State has evidenced its intent to occupy the field (field preemption).

Field preemption exists when a local law regulating the same subject matter is deemed inconsistent with the State law.  In this situation, the local law must yield, because it thwarts the State’s overriding policy for State-wide uniformity. See, Matter of Chwick v. Mulvey, (state law regarding firearm licenses preempted a Nassau County ordinance against “deceptively colored” handguns where comprehensive regulations by the State demonstrate the Legislature’s intent to occupy the field”).

Presently, New York has not expressly preempted the regulation of hunting; and there does not appear to be any case directly on point for conflict preemption.  However, the State’s intent to “occupy the field” of hunting appears evidenced by comprehensive ECL statutes, the framework of NYSDEC regulations and strict licensing requirements. See, ECL Title 11.

Moreover,  given the purpose and scope of the State’s legislative scheme, including the need for statewide uniformity, the State need not expressly state that it is preempting local municipalities in the area of hunting. See generally, Albany Area Blders v. Town of Guiderland,  However, in the case of Smithtown, it appears the State may have to take a more explicit position or risk the balkanization of hunting regulations on Long Island and possibly other parts of the State.  This seems particularly counterintuitive when dealing with the State’s wildlife.

On January 18,  2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld a decision denying an application for a religious real property tax exemption on the grounds that the property owner’s use of the main structure as a dormitory and living quarters for 20 students ran contrary to the one family dwelling Certificate of Occupancy issued for the premises and thus violated the Town of Ramapo’s zoning laws.  See, Congregation Ateres Yisroel v Town of Ramapo, 2014-09194.  

In Congregation Ateres Yisroel, plaintiff claimed and received a religious real property tax exemption for the years 2008-2011.  In 2012, plaintiff sought to renew its religious tax exemption by submitting a renewal application stating that no changes had been made to the property’s ownership or use from 2011 to 2012.    The Town denied the request on the grounds that plaintiff erected two trailers on the premises without seeking permits or approvals and that plaintiff used the main structure to house 20 students in dormitory style living quarters all in contravention to a 1954 Certificate of Occupancy stating the premises is certified as a “one family dwelling.”

Without any discussion or analysis of whether the students being housed at the property were engaged in conduct of a religious nature, the Second Department, agreed with the trial court that use of the premises for dormitory style living contravenes the “one family dwelling” Certificate of Occupancy and as a result, denial of the religious real property tax exemption was upheld.

Now, this decision is not particularly shocking or even interesting for that matter.  However, this decision caught my attention because not long ago, we published a blog post entitled “Court Supports an Expansive View of What Constitutes a Religious Use.”  In that post, the Third Department reinstated a decision of the City of Albany’s Zoning Board holding that a church’s partnership with a not-for-profit entity to house 14 homeless individuals at the church parsonage was a permissible use for a house of worship.  The Court agreed that assisting the homeless is consistent with the mission and actions of a house of worship.   See, Matter of Sullivan v Board of Zoning Appeals of City of Albany.

Although Sullivan did not involve a real property tax exemption, it is quite likely that the house of worship in the Sullivan case continues to receive a religious real property tax exemption despite the fact that the church is housing 14 homeless people in a single family zoning district.  To the contrary, Congregation Ateres Yisroel’s lost its religious real property tax exemption based on its use of its premises to house 20 students.  Both religious uses are in single family zoning districts, and both religious uses are housing multiple people.

The question perhaps becomes – Why is sheltering the homeless more in line with a religious purpose than housing 20 students?  The facts in Congregation Ateres Yisroel are silent as to why the students were being housed at the property and whether their housing was in furtherance of a religious purpose.  If Congregation Ateres Yisroel could establish that the student housing had some connection to its religious purpose, perhaps the result of this case would be different.    At a minimum, we may have a possible split in the Departments as to what types of uses constitute “religious uses” and where and how do we draw the line?   Perhaps our next update on this topic will be the result of a decision by our State’s highest court.  Tune in each Monday for the latest news.

It is well established that zoning codes and regulations are in derogation of property owners’ rights in and to the use of their property. Zoning restricts the use of land which was otherwise free of restrictions.  An owner’s rights in use of land are among the oldest and enjoy the most protection under common law and state and federal constitutions. Therefore, the courts of New York have regularly and consistently held that (1) any such codes and regulations must be strictly construed and (2) any ambiguity must be construed against the municipality and in favor of the property owner:

“Since zoning regulations are in derogation of the common law, they must be strictly construed against the municipality which has enacted and seeks to enforce them. Any ambiguity in the language used in such regulations must be resolved in favor of the property owner.”

Because of the heightened scrutiny of zoning regulations for ambiguity, they are difficult to draft and often subject to litigation – which can get deep into the weeds of statutory construction and even grammar. For example, where a zoning code required site plan review for “any new construction or any addition thereto in excess of 2000 sq. ft.,” the Zoning Board found that the limitation of 2,000 sq. ft. applied only to “any addition” and not to “any new construction.” The Third Department reversed, in part because there was no comma between “thereto” and “in excess of.” Your high school English (or Latin) teacher would rejoice at the deconstructive analysis.

Other examples: Does prohibition of car storage prohibit a parking garage, where there is no definition of “storage” in the code? (Answer = No; parking garage is OK) Is a code validly applied which does not allow an owner to “store” a boat in the front yard, where there is, again, no definition of how long a boat must be in the front yard to be deemed to be “stored” there? (Answer = Code not valid because of ambiguity.) Can a code require building permits for all construction “other than ordinary repairs that are not structural?” (Answer = No; code invalidly applied because there was no definition of what constitutes “ordinary” or “not structural” repairs.) Is a helicopter pad an “airport” which is defined as a landing area that is used “regularly?” (Answer = Yes; it was used frequently enough to be deemed “regular.”)

A recent code amendment in an East End municipality requires that driveway gates must have a “setback to the street” of no less than 20 feet or 40 feet (depending on lot size). What is the “street?” The paved roadway? The lot line dividing the private property from the municipality’s right-of-way for the road? The difference could be 10 or 15 feet or more of unpaved verge or shoulder between the pavement and the lot line.

The difficulty in drafting is highlighted by these cases which pit the purportedly “obvious” reading of the code against the rule of strict construction – resolving any ambiguity in favor of the property owner. The burden on the municipality is especially acute where municipal officials come up with different interpretations. The statute is certainly vague and ambiguous when reasonable municipal minds differ – when “reasonable enforcement officers could come to different conclusions” – and they actually did.

Moreover, the New York courts have rejected the argument that Zoning Boards have the authority to remove the ambiguity by choosing the interpretation that the Board prefers. Rather, the courts recognize that while a board’s interpretation is entitled to deference in most situations, where the statute is ambiguous the question becomes a matter of law and the usual deference does not apply.

In a recent Zoning Board case, the same beneficial owners had a residence on one lot and a tennis court, without a home, on another immediately adjacent lot. There was no dispute that the tennis court was a valid subordinate use to the adjacent residence. However, the municipality would not approve a certificate of occupancy for the tennis court because there was no residence on the court property. There was no direct prohibition in the zoning code of an accessory use on a lot without a principal use. The municipality relied solely and entirely on the code’s definition of accessory use as:

“A subordinate use, building or structure customarily incidental to and located on the same lot occupied by the main use, building or structure. The term . . .”accessory structure” may include a . . . tennis court. . . .” (Emphasis added)

The owners sought relief in two separate ways. First, they argued for an interpretation that the code did not require that the tennis court and the dwelling be on the same lot because the word “customarily” modified both “incidental to” and “located on the same lot.” Therefore, an accessory structure is defined as only customarily located on the same lot as the main use. “Customarily” does not mean “always” or “required.” At the very least, the code was ambiguous on this point and, they argued, could not be used by the municipality to deny the owners the right to maintain the tennis court on the lot by itself.

The owners also sought a variance to allow the stand-alone tennis court in the event that the Zoning Board rejected their ambiguity argument. The Zoning Board rejected the argument that the ambiguity of the code section made it unenforceable, finding that they had regularly interpreted the code against the owners’ position. However, the Zoning Board granted the variance allowing the tennis court to exist without a main use on the same lot. A court might have overturned the Board’s contention that it had the right to interpret the ambiguous language in favor of the municipality, since that issue is a matter of law and the interpretation must be in favor of the property owner. But the bottom line is that the applicants got their tennis court and probably don’t care that it was by variance and not by voiding or interpreting an ambiguous code provision – and an Article 78 was averted.

And therein lies the point of this blog: The “ambiguity” rule can be difficult for applicants because courts can, and do, find that the code is not so ambiguous after all. On the other hand, zoning and planning Boards – and, especially, their counsel – know that the “ambiguity” rule is deep-rooted in New York law and that the courts do not hesitate to apply the rule as a matter of law, without deference to the boards. The bottom line is that making a legitimate “ambiguity rule” argument at the municipal board level can be successful in itself, but it is perhaps most important as a prod to the board to grant a variance or site plan or other municipal approval.

A not-so-clear code provision can be very helpful in obtaining a municipal approval!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Fire Island is a 32-mile long, slender barrier sand bar island located between the Atlantic Ocean and the South Shore of Long Island.  The island, which varies in width from as little as about 550 feet to not more than about 1,760 feet, divides the Great South Bay and the westerly end of Moriches Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.  In a letter report prepared by the Department of the Interior in 1963 for the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Fire Island was described as containing “an impressive array of seashore resources,” including beaches that are “wide, clean, and gently sloping” and dunes that are “imposing and usually well stabilized by beach grass, bayberry, other vegetation, and some lowlying pitch pine.”  See, 1964 U.S.Code Cong. & Adm. News, p. 3714.  The report referred to the sunken forest in the western half of the island as “a gem of its kind,” dominated by several hundred year-old American holly trees.

In apparent concern for the potential destruction of Fire Island’s unique environmental resources, Congress passed the Fire Island National Seashore Act, 16 U.S.C. § 459e et seq. (“Act”) on September 11, 1964, which established the “Fire Island National Seashore” (“Seashore”).  The stated purpose of the Act was to conserve and preserve the Seashore’s “relatively unspoiled and undeveloped beaches, dunes, and other natural features.”

To achieve this objective, Congress provided the Secretary of the Interior (“Secretary”) with broad authority to condemn unimproved, privately-owned properties, and in limited situations, private properties that are being used in a manner that is inconsistent with any applicable standard contained in regulations promulgated under the Act.  The regulations, codified at 36 CFR Part 28, also set forth Federal standards to which local zoning ordinances must conform, articulating limitations on use, location, and size of structures on public and private property within the boundaries of the Seashore in order to reconcile the population density of the Seashore with the protection of its natural resources.

The Federal standards divide the Seashore into three distinct land use districts – the Community Development District, the Seashore District and the Dune District.  The Community Development District generally permits construction or expansion of existing residential units, religious institutions, schools and commercial units in existence before 1964.  The Seashore District permits alterations of existing improved properties, but prohibits new construction.  The Dune District prohibits all construction after 1978, except for dune crossing structures deemed necessary for public access to the beach.

Despite the Federal oversight, the Act does not preempt the four municipalities within the Seashore – the towns of Brookhaven and Islip, and the villages of Ocean Beach and Saltaire – from enacting and enforcing their own zoning regulations or granting variances and other zoning approvals.  Instead, the Act directs the Secretary to establish guidelines for local zoning authorities to use in developing local zoning regulations that conform to the Federal standards, as well as a process by which the Superintendent of the Fire Island National Seashore (“Superintendent”) shall receive copies of all applications for variances, exceptions, special permits, and permits for commercial and industrial uses, notices of all public hearings concerning said applications, and notices of the final action taken on such applications from the local zoning authorities.

The Secretary is charged with reviewing local zoning regulations to ensure that they are consistent with the Act and its implementing regulations.  The Secretary must disapprove any zoning ordinance or amendment thereof that he considers adverse to the protection and development of the Seashore, or which fails to include requirements that the Secretary receive notice of certain land use approvals and permits granted by the local zoning authority.  Properties that are developed in accordance with an approved ordinance, or which are the subject of variances and other land use approvals that result in such property being used in a manner that conforms to the Federal standards are protected from condemnation under the Act.  By 1985, the Secretary had approved compliance with Federal standards for the four zoning jurisdictions within the Seashore.

As a result, applicants seeking to construct new or expanded structures within the Seashore must now comply with both the federal zoning standards and the applicable zoning regulations of the local zoning authority.  In recognition of the concurrent Federal jurisdiction within the Seashore, the codes of the towns of Brookhaven and Islip have regulations that specifically pertain to properties within the Seashore.  See, Brookhaven Town Code, Ch. 85, Art. XVIII; Islip Town Code, Ch. 68, Art. XXXVIII.  Similarly, the Village of Ocean Beach has adopted regulations that largely mirror the Federal regulations that require that the Superintendent be provided with notice of applications for building permits and certain zoning applications, as well as notice of final actions taken on said applications.  See, Ocean Beach Village Code § 164-4.

To protect their property from the risk of future condemnation, applicants seeking to construct, reconstruct or alter structures within the Seashore, and their consultants, should take the time to carefully review the Federal standards, as well as the local zoning regulations.  They should also closely monitor the processing of their application to ensure that the local zoning authority has properly referred the building permit or zoning application to the Superintendent of the Seashore.

Owners of property within the Seashore who have questions about the process should visit https://www.nps.gov/fiis/learn/management/federal-review-building-zoning-permits.htm or contact the local National Park Service office at (631) 687-4750.

As outlined in our prior blog by Anthony S. Guardino, posted on March 20, 2017 entitled, “East Hampton Considers New Laws Mandating Nitrogen-Reducing Sanitary Systems and Offering Rebates to Replace Existing Systems”, similar to the Towns of East Hampton and Brookhaven,  the Town of Southampton adopted a local law on July 25, 2017 requiring advanced nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems starting September 1, 2017.

The Town will require an Innovative and Alternative On-Site Wastewater Treatment System (“I/A OWTS”) for (i) all new residential construction; (ii) any substantial septic upgrades required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; and (iii) any increase of 25% or more in the floor area of a building for those projects located in the “High Priority Area” as defined by the Community Preservation Water Quality Improvement Plan Project (“CP WQIPP”). In addition, an I/A OWTS shall be required for any new septic system or a substantial septic system upgrade required by the Conservation Board or Environment Division pursuant to Town Code Chapter 325, Wetlands.

The I/A OWTS is defined in the Town Code as “an onsite decentralized wastewater treatment system that, at a minimum, is designed to result in total nitrogen in treated effluent of 19 mg/l or less, as approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.”

Southampton is also offering a rebate program through its Community Preservation Fund for systems within the Medium and High Priority Areas of the CP WQIPP with the following qualifying limits: (i) if you earn less than $300,000 /year, up to 100% of the cost to a maximum of $15,000 is available and (ii) if you earn between $300,001 – $500,000/year, up to 50% of the cost to a maximum of $15,000 is available.

Prior to implementing the updated septic requirements, the Town of Southampton studied the need for such systems and drafted the Community Preservation Water Quality Preservation Plan Project. The CP WQIPP thoroughly identifies and reviews the need for the required sanitary upgrades, finds consistency with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and outlines how the Town characterized the high and medium priority properties that are now required to comply with the law.

Specifically, the CP WQIPP states:“The WQIPP presented herein is designed to complement the 2015 Town of Southampton CPF Project Plan, by markedly advancing efforts to foster aquatic habitat and watershed restoration, promote flushing in our bays and tidal systems, abate non-point source pollution and runoff, reduce sewage discharges and nitrogen inputs, and reverse or stem other activities threatening our coastal resources and drinking water aquifers.”

The Town of Southampton has preliminarily mapped priority areas for the purpose of this plan, based on the following criteria:

  •  Locations with no public water (well water);
  • Older communities, where many of the homes are likely to have cesspools instead of septic systems;
  • Homes that are built on small lots (less than half-acre);
  • Sites that have shallow depths to groundwater (e.g. less than 10 feet);
  • Sites that may be temporarily under threat of flooding or storm surge (FEMA Flood zones, SLOSH7 zones);
  • Soils that may be too porous or too impermeable for proper treatment of wastewater;
  • Areas where groundwater reaches surface water bodies relatively quickly;
  •  Nearby water bodies listed as TMDL impaired or the site of restoration efforts.

Parcels in each hamlet that meet one or more of these criteria are delineated on the maps as high or medium priority as follows:

High Priority: A combination of the parameters described above (SLOSH, FEMA, TMDL, Size, etc.) and 0-2 year groundwater to surface water travel times.

Medium Priority: 0-10 year groundwater to surface water travel times excluding the areas in the High Priority above.

The CP WQIPP also includes maps of the entire Town delineating the High Priority Areas (all waterfront/coastal properties in the Town) and Medium Priority Areas. Although these low nitrogen systems require ongoing monitoring and maintenance, the Southampton law does not require ongoing inspections by the Town.  The Town of Southampton has set up a helpful website where property owners can look up their specific property to determine if they are located in a High or Medium Priority area.  Notably, the Town of East Hampton adopted its local law requiring nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems on August 8, 2017, however, the portion of the law requiring the new, nitrogen-reducing sanitary system does not take effect until January 1, 2018.

 

Now more than ever, climate resiliency along our coastlines is an important aspect of long range municipal planning.   Back in 1981, the New York State Legislature enacted the Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act, N.Y. Exec. Law § 910. (the “NYS Coastal and Waterways Act”).

Coastal communities and communities on designated inland waterways are eligible to participate in the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. Coastal communities are communities on the Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, New York Harbor and the waters around New York City, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, Niagara River or the St. Lawrence River; eligible communities on designated inland waterways include communities located on an inland waterbody, such as a major lake, river or the State Canal, or other inland waterway designated by Article 42 of the Executive Law.

Among other things, the NYS Coastal and Waterways Act encourages local governments to participate in the State’s coastal management efforts by submitting local waterfront revitalization programs (“LWRPs”) to the Secretary of the DOS for approval. See N.Y. Exec. Law § 915(1).  Under the Act, any local government, which has any portion of its jurisdiction contiguous to the state’s coastal waters or inland waterways may submit an LWRP to the Secretary of State.  See, NYS Guidebook.  If an LWRP is approved by the Secretary , state agency actions in that municipality must also “be consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the local program.” Id. at § 915(8).

Unfortunately, the Act is silent regarding the relationship between the LWRP and local comprehensive land use plans and zoning.   However, to ensure that local development and waterfront revitalization plans are appropriately integrated into the local land use planning and zoning regulatory framework, many municipalities have incorporated their approved LWRPs into zoning regulations.  As a result, the LWRP policy document may serve as a legal foundation for zoning changes in part, due to their incorporation into the comprehensive plan.  By doing so, municipalities are able to effectively provide implementation mechanisms that support the principles and goals delineated in the waterfront plan through the use of their zoning powers.  See generally, Bonnie Briar Syndicate, Inc. v. Town of Mamaroneck, 94 N.Y.2d 96, (1999), 

The Department of State’s Division of Local Government provides training assistance to municipalities relating to zoning procedures in addition to other practical legal and technical advise.   See, www.dos.state.ny.us/lgss.