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.

 

In Matter of Avella v. City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 04383 (June 6, 2017), the New York Court of Appeals reviewed a decision by the City of New York approving a proposal by Queens Development Group, LLC (“QDG”) which sought to construct a large-scale retail, restaurant and movie theater complex known as “Willets West,” on the portion of Flushing Meadows Park where Shea Stadium once stood – currently, the parking lot for Citi Field.  The development was part of QDG’s larger redevelopment plan for Willets Point, a blighted area adjacent to Citi Field.  QDG included Willets West in the development proposal under the theory that “the creation of a retail and entertainment center at Willets West w[ould] spur a critical perception change of Willets Point, establishing a sense of place and making it a destination where people want to live, work, and visit.”

After the City approved QDG’s proposal, a state senator, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, taxpayers, and users of Flushing Meadows Park brought an action seeking to enjoin the proposed development.  They claimed that because the Willets West development was located within designated parkland, the public trust doctrine required legislative authorization, which had not been granted.

The Supreme Court, New York County, denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. The Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously reversed and granted the petition to the extent of declaring that construction of Willets West on City parkland “without the authorization of the state legislature” violated the public trust doctrine, and enjoined further construction.  The Court of Appeals granted QDG leave to appeal and affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.

The Court began its analysis by discussing the public trust doctrine from Brooklyn Park Commrs. v. Armstrong, 45 N.Y. 234 (1871) – a decision it issued nearly 150 years ago – where the Court held that, when a municipality has taken land “for the public use as a park,” it must hold that property “in trust for that purpose” and may not convey it without the sanction of the legislature.  The Court also held that the legislature’s authorization to alienate land held in public trust must be “plainly conferred” by its “direct and specific approval.”

Applying these principles, the Court examined whether the State legislature had authorized construction at Willets West, on property that the petitioners contended was City parkland. To address that inquiry, the Court reviewed the legislation the State legislature had enacted in 1961 authorizing the development of a sports stadium on City parkland that came to be known as Shea Stadium. The Court ruled that, since a shopping mall and movie theater were not consistent with typical uses of a stadium, the statute did not authorize the Willets West development.

The Court also considered the legislative history of the statute and ruled that it too demonstrated that the legislature had only authorized the land to be rented for public stadium use, not for private business purposes.

The Court concluded that the legislative authorization to rent the stadium and its grounds to private parties could not “under our longstanding construction of the public trust doctrine, constitute legislative authorization to build a shopping mall or movie theater.”

Interestingly, the Court acknowledged that the remediation of Willets Point was “a laudable goal” and that QDG’s Willets West development would immensely benefit the people of New York City by transforming a blighted area into a new, vibrant community.  Nonetheless, it pointed out that those contentions had no place in its consideration of whether the legislature had granted authorization for the Willets West development on City parkland that was held in the public trust.  Of course, it concluded, the legislature was free to alienate all or part of the parkland for whatever purposes it were to see fit, provided that it does so through direct and specific legislation that expressly authorizes the desired alienation.

While the Court’s ruling does not impact the mixed-use redevelopment proposed for Willets East, QDG is reportedly evaluating its next steps for the project.

unanimous-cartoon

Generally, when a majority of the members of a zoning board of appeals (ZBA) either votes in favor of or against an action, the board is considered to have acted.  What if a ZBA is unable to take any kind of majority action, ending up with a tie vote?  The result hinges on the dual jurisdictions many ZBAs enjoy.

All ZBAs are directly given appellate jurisdiction by state law; however, where a local law or ordinance grants a ZBA additional powers, the additional powers are referred to as “original jurisdiction.”  Examples of a ZBA’s original jurisdiction include the power to grant special use permits.

In Tall Trees Construction Corp. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Huntington, 97 NY2d 86 [2001], the Court of Appels  determined the effect of repeated tie votes by the Town of Huntington ZBA for variances.  The court held that “when a quorum of the Board is present and participates in a vote on an application, a vote of less than a majority of the Board is deemed a denial.”

This conclusion led the Legislature, in 2002,  to codify an amendment to Town Law § 267-a that added a new subsection entitled “Voting requirements.”  In particular, Town Law 267-a(13)(b) states:

“Default denial of appeal. In exercising its appellate jurisdiction only, if an affirmative vote of a majority of all members of the board is not attained on a motion or resolution to grant a variance or reverse any order, requirement, decision or determination of the enforcement official within the time allowed by subdivision eight of this section, the appeal is denied….” (emphasis added).

So, what happens when a ZBA casts a tie vote in an application for a special use permit?  Nothing, according to the Third Department’s recent decision in Matter of Alper Restaurant Inc. v. Town of Copake Zoning Board  Of Appeals, 2017 NY Slip Op 02871 [3d Dept 2017].  In Alper, the Court affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision that a 2-2 vote issued for a special use permit was a non-action, because there was no majority vote; and the ZBA was exerting its original jurisdiction over the applicant’s special use permit.  This enabled the ZBA to vote again on the same matter and grant it with a 3-2 vote.

Thus, an appeal or variance is considered to be denied by statute if a tie vote is cast when considering a variance. This is not so when the same board is voting on a special use permit.  A tie vote in connection with a special permit results in a non-action.  This begs the question of whether ZBA’s voting multiple times on special use permits is the desired result?

The Town of Babylon’s plan to revitalize the Route 110 corridor in East Farmingdale, NY keeps moving forward. The Town began targeting this area for transformation in 2005. It now looks like the Town may be closer than ever to achieving its goal of redeveloping 100 acres surrounding the intersection of Route 110 and Conklin Street.redevelopment shutterstock_601952789

The targeted area poses challenges to redevelopment. There are height constraints and a runway protection zone associated with Republic Airport. The Route 110-Conklin Street intersection is user unfriendly and unsafe. The automobile-oriented nature of the area, including large parking lots, limited sidewalks, and widely disbursed buildings, is not conducive to pedestrian and bicycle users. In addition, past industrial uses may have left a legacy of contamination.

East Farmingdale Design Charrette

Residents, business owners and other interested parties participated in a multi-day meeting in January and February 2017 with a design team hired by the Town to flesh out ideas and concepts of what the community wants to see in this redevelopment effort. In April 2017, the results of this meeting, referred to as a design charrette, were presented by the design team in a report entitled East Farmingdale Design Charrette.

The lynchpin of the design hinges on re-opening and upgrading the East Farmingdale Long Island Rail Road station, which has been shuttered for almost 30 years. The MTA earmarked $5 million from its capital budget toward this effort. This closed station is adjacent to properties that were part of Republic Airport and are currently owned by the state. The plan calls for these parcels to be the core of a transit-oriented development location. The plan also includes a bus rapid transit  stop that Suffolk County is planning for the Route 110-Conklin Street intersection.

Redevelopment Wish List

The charrette participants came up with a wish list of big ideas. These include walkways, pedestrian crossings, bicycle lanes, and mixed use retail and residential with pocket parks. The residential components would include single family homes, apartments and affordable housing. Other ideas coming out of the charrette were a museum, transit hub, and green space. The design team commented on the desire of many participants for a village-like feel, rather than an urban city vibe, for the redevelopment. The design team also noted that community gathering spaces and cultural facilities are currently missing from the targeted area and should be included in the redevelopment.

The design team drafted a Form-Based Code that will help guide future development. The code, while still a first draft, provides physical details such as height restrictions, distances between buildings, landscape specifications and open space requirements.

Check out the Town of Babylon’s website for more information about this project.

voidable-contractsAlso known as negative easements, restrictive covenants can wreak havoc on the ability to develop property. Recently, in our real estate practice at Farrell Fritz, we have seen two alarming examples.

In both cases, the restrictive covenant combined with applying municipal zoning requirements precluded the development of the property. Fortunately, we had inserted language into the contracts that allowed the client to cancel the contract with no negative financial consequences.

Restrictive Covenants and Land Use Regulations

One such instance involved a waterfront parcel on Shinnecock Bay in the Town of Southampton. This property was subject to the Town’s wetland law, which regulates the setback of structures in relation to the location of the wetlands on site. Through a title search, we found out that the property was also burdened by a private covenant that also restricted the location of structures.

This covenant contained specific language which required that a structure constructed on the site be setback at least 85 feet from the street. From the opposite side of the property, the Town’s wetland regulations required that a principal structure be at least 125 feet from the wetlands.

Applying both the wetland setback and covenant setback resulted in a negative building envelope.

Since this covenant was included as part of the subdivision process, all 26 owners of lots in the subdivision had to sign off on a waiver of the covenant requirements.

Another similar circumstance occurred where a covenant in a deed for a lakefront property required that any structure constructed on the premises be situated 60 feet from the street. This property was also subject to the same 125-foot wetland setback as the previous example. Again, application of both setbacks rendered the lot unbuildable.

In this instance, the covenant was unusual. It only benefitted the sellers of the lot, who also owned other properties in the area. The sellers specifically retained the right to modify the restrictions imposed by the covenant.

If applied to their fullest extent, both restrictions result in a lot that cannot be developed.

Relief From Restrictive Covenants

Obviously, a property owner could apply for relief to the municipal agency having authority over wetland regulations. However, these municipal boards are under increasing pressure to preserve wetlands which protect water bodies, so relief from these restrictions is difficult to obtain. Extinguishment of the covenant is the only other option. There are three ways to extinguish a covenant:  (1) an agreement between the interested parties to the covenants; (2) a merger of ownership or (3) a final decision by a court of law.

All three paths are challenging.

To obtain an agreement to extinguish the covenant in my first example would require consent from the other 25 property owners in the subdivision.

Because of the vague nature of the language that created the covenant in the lakefront example, extinguishment involves a difficult title challenge. There, a prospective developer must research title ownership of the nearby properties to determine those owned by the persons that created the covenant. After that research, a perspective purchaser must then obtain an agreement of all current property owners in the chain of title of the affected properties to amend the covenant.

Second, to merge ownership would require the purchase of the properties that benefit from the covenant. A purchase of the necessary lots in both examples above would be cost prohibitive.

Finally, a party looking to extinguish a covenant can commence a litigation under §1500 of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law. There are too many causes of action under §1500 to list here; but extinguishing a well written covenant through the court system would be a difficult, time consuming, and expensive task.

The obvious advice here is to authorize a title company to provide any covenants and easements that could affect the development of a property under consideration for purchase prior to entering into contract of sale.