Local governments in New York may regulate land use within their borders directly through their zoning codes and indirectly by adopting a variety of other statutes and regulations. There are, however, limits to their power. Municipalities, of course, must not discriminate on the basis of religion in violation of the U.S. or New York State Constitutions or other applicable federal or state laws.

That message was delivered loud and clear in a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in a long-running court battle over a proposed rabbinical college in the Village of Pomona, in Rockland County.  In Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 07-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2017), the Court, following a 10-day bench trial, ruled that the Village could not use zoning and other laws it adopted to thwart the construction of the rabbinical college and associated dormitory housing proposed in the community.  In an earlier proceeding to consider the parties’ motions for summary judgment and a punitive motion for sanctions against the Village for the spoliation of evidence, the Court granted portions of each party’s motion, including the sanctions motion that resulted in an award of attorneys’ fees and costs relating to the spoliation dispute.  See Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 7-2007-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. 2015).  For a more detailed discussion of the pre-trial motions, see Charlotte Biblow’s two-part blog post, How To Spend Over $1.5 Million (And Counting) of Taxpayer Funds Defending A Land Use Claim and Facebook Posts And Text Messages Result In Monetary And Other Sanctions Being Imposed Against A Municipality.

The case involved approximately 100 acres of land in Pomona purchased in 2004 by the Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. Tartikov sought to build a “kollel” or rabbinical college on the property that would include housing for its students – all affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish community, including various sects of the Hasidic community – and the students’ families. According to Tartikov, the on-campus housing would permit students to study from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and also to meet their religious obligations to their families.

Tartikov and future students and faculty (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) commenced an action in 2007 to challenge portions of three laws that Pomona adopted: an “Accreditation Law,” which defined educational institutions and dormitories; a “Dormitory Law,” which limited the size of dormitories; and a “Wetlands Law,” which established wetlands protections in the Village (collectively, the “Challenged Laws”).  The Plaintiffs argued that the Challenged Laws effectively prevented the construction of Tartikov’s rabbinical college in the Village and were discriminatory and substantially burdened their religious exercise.  The Village claimed that the Challenged Laws had been passed for legitimate reasons and were intended to prevent the construction of a large number of housing units for students and their families that the Village contended would overburden its infrastructure and detract from its rural character.

The Court ruled that the Village passed the Challenged Laws “with a discriminatory purpose.”  Specifically, the Court opined that the Village enacted the Challenged Laws to prevent the spread of the Orthodox/Hasidic community within the Village, and, in certain respects, to specifically target Tartikov and the property it owned. The Court said that it based this conclusion “on the context in which the laws were adopted” and “the unsatisfactory and incredible reasons presented for their adoption.”  The Court noted that a number of Village officials had made statements indicative of their prejudice towards Tartikov and Orthodox/Hasidic Jews. The Court also pointed out that members of the community expressed animus towards Orthodox/Hasidic Jews and that the Village’s Board of Trustees “acted on that animus.”

While the Court invalidated the Challenged Laws as a violation of the Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion and equal protection of the laws, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.  3601 et seq., as well as their right to freedom of worship under the New York Constitution, local government officials and their counsel should be guided by the Court’s critical focus on the discriminatory motives behind the Village’s adoption of these laws. The evidence cited by the Court for its conclusions and its application of that evidence to constitutional and statutory standards highlights the official and non-official actions that government officials should avoid when faced with similar circumstances.

On March 28, 2018, the Babylon Town Board adopted a moratorium on any new land use applications that seek to increase a parcel’s wastewater limits established by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (“SCDHS”) by utilizing Pine Barrens Credits (“PBC”), which effectively transfer development rights from other parts of Suffolk County to properties within the Town of Babylon.  During the period of the moratorium, the Town plans to study the potential impacts to groundwater from allowing developers to increase development density by acquiring PBCs.

The concept of transferring development rights using PBCs derives from the Long Island Pine Barrens Maritime Reserve Act, which was adopted in 1993 for the purpose of protecting approximately 100,000 acres of the Long Island Pine Barrens located within the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.  As one method of land preservation, the Act authorizes the creation of a transfer of development rights (“TDR”) program, the specifics of which are set forth in the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan (“Plan”).  Under the TDR program, a PBC can be used to transfer the development potential from a parcel of property within the protected Pine Barrens Core Preservation Area (“Core”), or other environmentally-sensitive area identified in the Plan (a “sending parcel”), to a parcel in a designated area outside the Core (a “receiving parcel”).  Upon acceptance of the PBC, the sending parcel’s development rights are transferred to the receiving parcel, which may now be developed more intensely.  For a more detailed discussion of the Pine Barrens TDR program, see John Armentano’s blog post, Pine Barren Credits – There’s Money In Those Trees.

Historically, PBCs have been accepted by several towns and by the SCDHS to permit a new development project, or an expansion or change of use of an existing building, that will result in a wastewater discharge (effluent loading) that exceeds the SCDHS’s allowable sanitary flow rate for parcels that are served by an individual on-site sewerage system (i.e., not connected to a municipal sewer system).  The allowable flow rate for a particular parcel is set forth in Article 6 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code and is calculated based on the proposed use, and size of the building and the parcel on which it sits, as well as the hydrogeological (groundwater recharge) zone in which the parcel is located.  A PBC may be used to permit additional effluent loading up to a maximum of twice the allowable density.

Following the recent approval of two development projects in North Babylon and Deer Park, the Town has decided to take a closer look at the environmental consequences of allowing for increased density.  According to Richard Groh, the Town’s chief environmental analyst, the Town’s planning and environmental control departments have formed a working group to study the impacts to groundwater that will result from continuing the practice of accepting PBCs to increase development density.  Upon completion of the study, the group will submit its recommendations to the Town Board for consideration.

In Matter of Save America’s Clocks, Inc. v. City of New York, the majority of a divided 3-2 Appellate Division, First Department, panel attempted to clarify the authority of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) under the New York City Landmarks Preservation and Historic Districts Law (“Landmarks Law”).  The majority ruled that the LPC may require a private owner of property purchased subject to a prior interior landmark designation to preserve the historic character and operation of the interior landmark and to continue to permit at least minimal public access to it.

The case involved a 19th Century building in lower Manhattan and, in particular, the clocktower atop the building’s western end, which houses a purely mechanical tower clock with a mechanism similar to London’s “Big Ben.” A room on the building’s fourteenth floor has an interior spiral staircase that leads up to a landing housing the clock’s pendulum, and then to the clocktower’s machine room, where the clock mechanism sits.  Above the mechanism is the clock’s 5,000 pound bell.

New York City owned the building from 1968 until 2013, and used it to house courts and city government offices.  During that time, the LPC designated the exterior of the building a landmark, as well as 10 interior spaces of the building as interior landmarks, including the clocktower gallery, the clocktower machinery room, and the “No. 4 Striking Tower Clock.”  The City conveyed the building to a private developer in December 2013, by a deed that expressly provided that the conveyance was subject to the landmark designation.

Shortly thereafter, the new owner submitted an application for a certificate of appropriateness (COA) to the LPC, seeking permission to refurbish the building’s exterior and interior and to modify some of the landmarked interior spaces. Among other things, the application requested permission to convert the clocktower into a triplex private apartment, to disconnect the clock from its mechanism, and to electrify the clock.

The LPC held a public hearing on the owner’s application. There, the LPC’s counsel advised the commissioners that the LPC did not have the power under the Landmarks Law to require “interior-designated spaces to remain public” and “to require that [the clock] mechanism remain operable.” The LPC then approved the COA.

After various individuals and organizations challenged the LPC’s decision in an article 78 proceeding, a decision by Supreme Court, New York County, partially annulled the COA to the extent that it allowed work inside the clocktower that would completely eliminate public access and allowed work that would convert the clock from a mechanical to an electrical system of operation.  The decision was appealed to the Appellate Division, First Department.

Over the dissent of two justices, a majority of the panel affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision after finding that LPC’s determination was irrational and affected by an error of law because it was based on the erroneous advice of its counsel that caused a misunderstanding of LPC’s authority under the Landmarks Law.  The court concluded that, contrary to the legal advice it received, the LPC has the authority under the Landmarks Law to regulate the clock mechanism because it effectuates the Landmarks Law’s statutory purposes and because the law’s language “clearly gives the LPC authority to require the owner to run the clock by its still functioning mechanism and to deny the request to electrify it.”

The court reasoned that the LPC had designated the building’s fourteenth floor interior, including the clocktower machinery room and the clock machinery, as an interior landmark because the clock’s mechanism “represents an element of the city’s cultural and economic history and contributes to the building’s historical value,” and because maintaining it “would promote pride in the ‘accomplishments of the past’ and advance the [Landmarks Law’s] statutory purposes.”

Moreover, the court said, the LPC’s approval of the clock mechanism proposal was not rational. In the court’s view, the building’s “majestic clock, and its historically significant functioning mechanism, is a perfect example of the very reason the Landmarks Law exists,” because, as provided in Section 25-301(b), the “protection, . . . perpetuation, and use of [objects] of special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value is a public necessity.”

The court also examined whether the LPC has the authority to retain public access to the clocktower, and ruled that, under the Landmarks Law, the LPC may reject a COA that would cause a designated interior to be inaccessible to the public, and may require the owner to continue to provide at least some degree of public access.  The court reasoned that the statutory purposes of the Landmarks Law would be thwarted if the public was denied access to the clocktower and the opportunity to view its historic mechanism.

Whether the First Department’s decision will be the final word on this issue remains to be seen as the sharp division in the panel makes it likely that the case will make its way up to the Court of Appeals.  For now, however, the decision means that the Landmarks Law permits the LPC to require the private owner of property purchased subject to a prior interior landmark designation to preserve the historic character and operation of the interior landmark and to continue to permit at least minimal public access to it.

shutterstock_252155278The Town Board of the Town of East Hampton (“Town Board”) is considering progressive new legislation that will require advanced nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems for all new commercial and residential construction and major renovation projects.  This law, loosely modeled after a similar law adopted by the Town of Brookhaven for projects located within the environmentally-sensitive Carmans River watershed, imposes regulations designed to supplement those required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (“SCDHS”), pursuant to Article 6 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code.  At the February 7, 2017, Town Board work session, Supervisor Larry Cantwell justified the need for the law by declaring that “we need to find a way to replace these antiquated cesspools and septic systems that are clearly a threat to the quality of life and the quality of life that we have in the town.”

Under the proposed law, a new, low-nitrogen sanitary system will be mandated in one of three circumstances.  The first is where a proposal involves new commercial or residential construction.  The second is where there is an existing sanitary system, but there is evidence that it is failing. The third circumstance involves the substantial expansion of an existing structure.  Pursuant to East Hampton Town Code § 255-1-20(A), “substantial expansion” occurs where a building addition increases its gross floor area by 50% or more or where the cost of an addition, reconstruction, rehabilitation or other improvement to a structure equals or exceeds 50% of the market value of the structure prior to making or undertaking the addition, reconstruction, rehabilitation or other improvement.

At the outset, a qualifying “Low-Nitrogen Sanitary System” will be defined as one that is approved by the SCDHS and proven to reduce nitrogen levels in wastewater to 19 milligrams or less per liter.  However, the law contemplates that as technology advances and new systems are approved by the SCDHS that reduce nitrogen levels even further, future systems will be required to reduce nitrogen levels to 10 milligrams or less per liter.  By comparison, conventional systems release about 50 milligrams per liter of nitrogen into groundwater.

Since low-nitrogen systems, by design, need ongoing monitoring and maintenance in order to function properly, the law will require that owners of these systems maintain them in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.  The Town will also require inspections of these systems at least once every three years by qualified persons employed by or for the Town, or at anytime the Town’s Sanitation Inspector has reason to believe that a system is malfunctioning, has been illegally modified or expanded, or is being operated beyond its design limits.

In order to encourage the use of low-nitrogen sanitary systems, the Town Board is also considering a companion law entitled “Low-Nitrogen Sanitary System Rebate Program,” which creates a multi-tiered system of rebates to incentivize qualifying homeowners to voluntarily replace their aging cesspools and conventional septic systems with new sanitary systems that reduce nitrogen emissions.  The rebates would be paid from the Community Preservation Fund (“CPF”), a portion of which is available for water quality improvement projects.  The CPF, which is funded by a 2 percent tax on real estate transactions, is anticipated to have between $4 and $5 million available to fund the rebate program each year.

The largest rebate, covering 100% of the replacement cost of the system up to $15,000, would be offered to all homeowners in a Town Water Protection District, where shallow groundwater tables and proximity to tidal water bodies causes nitrogen in wastewater to quickly reach surface waters.  Homeowners with cesspool systems who are not located in a Water Protection District will be eligible for a 50% rebate, up to $10,000, and if their household income meets the Town’s threshold to qualify for affordable housing, the rebate increases to 75 percent.  Homeowners who are not eligible for either a cesspool or Water Protection District rebate, but wish to replace existing sanitary systems with new, advanced technology systems are eligible for rebates of 25% of the cost, up to a maximum of $5,000.  In order to qualify for the rebate program, the property owners must have an annual household income below the State’s STAR exemption threshold of $500,000.

At the conclusion of the February 7, 2017 Town Board work session meeting, Supervisor Cantwell indicated that both laws are likely to be discussed at a subsequent Town Board work session meeting prior to scheduling a public hearing on the legislation.