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!





Week to week we blog about recent developments in the land use arena, which typically arise in the civil context.  This week, we thought a recent “criminal” case decided by the Supreme Court, Appellate Term, Second Department, was not only particularly interesting, but also, the topic of illegal rental permits is one that many land use practitioners grapple with multiple times during their legal careers.

On October 26, 2017, the Appellate Term decided People v Makrides, 2017 NY Slip Op 51442 (U).  In Makrides, the Village Code Enforcement Officer alleged that on August 20, 2014, he visited property located on Beach Street.  The door was answered by an individual who identified himself as a renter and of no relation to the owner, Marie Makrides, with Beach Street Properties.   Based on a further review of rental permit records, and the lack thereof, the Code Enforcement Officer issued an Information alleging that Makrides was in violation of Village Code Section 205-4, failure to obtain a rental occupancy permit.

The Code Enforcement Officer visited the property again on November 5, 2014; except for the testimony of the alleged renter, the Code Enforcement Officer found the property to again be in violation of  the rental occupancy permit ordinance.

Makrides’ attorney moved to dismiss the accusatory instruments for facial insufficiency (CPL 100.15; 100.40).  Specifically, it was argued that the accusatory instruments “failed to contain facts of an evidentiary nature . . . and that they” were improperly based upon hearsay allegations. The Justice Court denied the motion.

After a non-jury trial, the Court found Makrides to be in violation of the rental permit ordinance and fined her $5,000.00 for each charge.  Makrides appealed.

The Appellate Term reversed both convictions, finding that facial insufficiency is a nonwaivable jurisdictional prerequisite to a criminal prosecution (CPL 100.40).  Finding that the statement made by the renter to be hearsay, and not supported by a deposition, it was an error for the Justice Court to rely on said testimony.  The testimony of the renter is clearly an out of court statement introduced in court for the truth of the matter at hand, to wit; classic hearsay testimony.

Consequently, the Appellate Term held that without said hearsay testimony, the Informations alleging that the defendant failed to obtain a rental occupancy permit –  without saying why it was necessary for her to obtain one – failed to contain “factual allegations . . .  through nonhearsay allegations . . . of the offense charged and defendant’s commission thereof.”

Abiding by principles of judicial restraint, the Court declined to make a further finding that the Port Jefferson Village Rental Permit Ordinance was unconstitutional.  It did, however, require the Village to remit, if paid, the combined $10,000.00 fine to the defendant.

My partner, Anthony Guardino, recently posted a three-part series about land use fees on this blog. This post concerns a decision by the Appellate Division upholding a $776,307 “Park Fee” imposed by the Village of Westhampton Beach in connection with the development of a 6.59 acre tract of land.

Westhampton Beach Associates, LLC v Incorporated Village of Westhampton Beach, 151 AD3d 793 [2d Dept 2017] involves a 39-unit condominium development. The Village Planning Board approved the site plan in 2008 on the condition that the developer pay a recreation or park fee (“Park Fee”) to be set by the Village Board of Trustees pursuant to Village Law § 7-725-a(6) and § 197-63(Q)(2) of the Village Code. The Park Fee was imposed because the reserved area required by the Village Code could not be located within the site plan. The Village determined that 63,684 square feet of reserved area was otherwise required based on the site plan.

The Village Code contains a formula to calculate the Park Fee based on the fair market value of the land at the time of the application, the total area shown on the site plan in square feet, 2,178 square feet of reserved area per dwelling unit and the number of dwelling units.   Using the formula, in 2011, the Village calculated the Park Fee to be $776,307.

The developer sold the parcel to a third-party in 2012 before the developer paid the Park Fee. The deal included a provision that the purchase price was reduced by the amount of the Park Fee that the purchaser would pay to the Village. It also provided that if any portion of the Park Fee was waived by the Village or was disallowed for any reason, the buyer would pay that amount to the developer. Two years later, the developer sued the Village, contending that the Park Fee was unconstitutionally vague, as a way to recoup that money from the purchaser.

The Appellate Division first discussed two defenses raised by the Village – standing and statute of limitations. The Court ruled in favor of the developer on these impediments. The Court held that even though the developer sold the parcel before it paid the Park Fee, it still had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Park Fee. The Court reasoned that the Park Fee was applied to the parcel at the time the developer owned the site and the subsequent sale and price reduction was an actual harm to the developer.   The Court then determined that the claim was not time-barred, as it was not subject to the four-mouth statute of limitations for Article 78 proceedings, since that type of proceeding could not be used to challenge the constitutionality of a Village code provision. Rather, it was governed by the six-year statute of limitations.

Unfortunately for the developer, the Court then ruled against the developer on the merits, finding that the Village Code provision was not constitutionally vague. Thus, the developer is unable to recoup the amount of the reduction in the purchase price attributable to the Park Fee, and the Village is able to continue imposing this significant fee on other applicants.

On June 28, 2017, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that a tenant has standing to challenge the definition of “Family” as set forth in the Freeport Village Code.

In Tomasulo v. Village of Freeport, ___A.D.3d___, the Village commenced a criminal proceeding against non-party property owner, William Goodhue, Jr. (owner), alleging that the tenancy between Tomasulo (tenant) and the owner violated sections 171-1 and 210-3 of the Freeport Village Code. The tenant had resided in a single family home with the owner of the home and two other non-related persons. This arrangement violated the definition of “Family” in the Village Code. As a result of the criminal proceeding, the owner commenced an eviction proceeding against Tomasulo.

In response to the eviction proceeding, Tomasulo commenced an Article 78 proceeding against the Village challenging the constitutionality of the definition of “Family” contained in Village Code sections 171-1 and 210-3.  The trial court converted the Article 78 proceeding to a complaint and granted the Village’s motion for summary judgment holding that Tomasulo lacked standing to seek a declaration as to the “constitutionality of the disputed portions of the Village Code” because Tomasulo had “not been injured or threatened with injury as a result of those provisions . . . and [Tomasulo] failed to adequately allege the existence of a justiciable controversy.”

In reversing the trial court, the Second Department stated that Tomasulo “demonstrated a ‘threatened injury to [his] protected right’ to his tenancy in the owner’s house . . . such that he has adequately shown ‘an interest sufficient to constitute standing to maintain the action.'”

Finding that Tomasulo’s pending eviction proceeding demonstrated a “present, rather than hypothetical, contingent or remote, prejudice to [him] . . . [the Court declared that the] Village did not establish, prima facie, its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.”


According to the American Planning Association, a “floating zone” is a zoning district that “delineates conditions” rather than the more traditional use classifications that are typically found on zoning maps. While a floating zone is contained in a zoning code, it is only added to the zoning map after a project seeking that designation is approved. Thus, it “floats” in the zoning code until it is used for a particular project.


Lindenhurst’s Downtown Redevelopment District Floating Zone

The Village of Lindenhurst Board of Trustees approved a new local law at its June 6, 2017 meeting that creates a Downtown Redevelopment District Floating Zone. The purpose of this Floating Zone is to use Smart Growth principles to encourage development of the downtown area. The Village Trustees believe this new zone will foster mixed-use redevelopment, including pleasant and attractive residential developments within walking distance of the Lindenhurst Long Island Rail Road station and the central business district.

The Process

The local law contains a two-step process for changing a site to the Floating Zone designation. First, a conceptual development plan and reclassification of specific parcels will need to be approved by the Board of Trustees. The second step will entail an approval of a detailed site development plan, and subdivision plat, if applicable, by the Board of Trustees.

The change of zone application to a Floating Zone needs to include a statement describing the nature of the project and how it advances the purpose of the Floating Zone. It also needs to describe adjoining and surrounding properties, the availability of community facilities and utilities, and anticipated traffic generation. The applicant also has to discuss open spaces proposed for the development.

The conceptual development plan needs to be drawn to scale and indicate the approximate location and conceptual design of all buildings, parking areas and access drives. It also needs to show the neighboring streets and properties and include the names of the owners of property located within 200 feet of the site. A traffic study can be requested by the Board of Trustees.

The local law provides that if the Board of Trustees entertains an application to change zoning to the Floating Zone, it will hold a public hearing. The local law also provides that if the Board of Trustees decides not to entertain such an application, it can do so with or without a public hearing and with or without SEQRA review.

The Criteria 

The local law provides criteria for the Board of Trustees to consider for Floating Zone applications. These include: (1) the location of the proposed development and its proximity to the railroad station and central business district; (2) minimum site size, dimensions and topography; (3) ownership of the parcels; (4) permitted uses; (5) height of structures, which is limited to 53 feet; (6) maximum density, which is limited to 37 units per acre; (7) maximum occupancy for residential units, which is set at two for studio units and the number of bedrooms plus two for all other units; (8) minimum floor area of any residential unit, which is set at 580 square feet; (9) minimum building setbacks, which are set at  ten feet for front and rear yards, side yard setbacks are ten feet for one side yard and twenty feet total for side yards; (10) parking minimums for retail and office use is one space per 250 square feet; multi-family residential use is based on the types of units – studios require 1.15 parking spots per unit, one-bedroom units require 1.30 spots per unit, two-bedroom units require 1.75 spots per unit and three or more bedroom units require 2.0 spots per unit; (11) basements and cellars are not allowed to be used for living, sleeping or habitable space; and (12) each building must have security and fire alarms.

It will be interesting to see if this new zoning classification helps Lindenhurst revitalize its downtown.


shutterstock_527190727In an effort to generate revenue without raising taxes, many municipalities on Long Island, and elsewhere in New York State, are turning to the use of various forms of land development fees to meet their fiscal challenges. In many cases, these fees can be legally and morally justified, such as when they offset the actual administrative costs of processing a land use application, or when a municipality must incur costs to provide additional public infrastructure and services to accommodate a new development. However, in their zeal to raise revenue, some local governments have ignored statutory and judicial authority that establish a narrow framework for collecting and using these fees, which may leave them exposed to a legal challenge.

In this post, which will be presented in multiple segments, we will highlight the various ways that local governments are using impact, administrative review and recording fees as a revenue-generating measure. We will review the propriety of these fees and discuss the potential impact that these fees can have on development, which is typically a good barometer of a community’s economic prosperity.  We will also discuss who ultimately pays these fees that translate into higher housing and other costs.

Local Impact Fees

Impact fees are one-time payments required by local governments in connection with new developments for the purpose of defraying some of the cost of constructing or improving the public infrastructure needed to serve them. Where authorized, such fees are used to shift the financial burden for additional capital improvements and services from taxpayers to private developers who are the beneficiaries of those improvements and services.

To be valid, there must be a “rational nexus” between the impact fee imposed and the infrastructure needs created by the new development. To satisfy the nexus test, the development must create a need for the new infrastructure; and the fee amount must be based on the extent to which the development benefits from the infrastructure. In other words, an impact fee cannot exceed the pro rata or proportionate share of the anticipated costs of providing the new development with the necessary infrastructure.

Roughly half the states have enacted enabling legislation authorizing the imposition of impact fees. New York, however, is not among them. In fact, a number of decisions by New York Courts cast serious doubt on whether municipalities can enact local impact fee legislation pursuant to home rule powers, or otherwise impose such fees on developers.

In the only impact fee case to reach New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals in 1989 invalidated the Town of Guilderland’s attempt to fund roadway and other transportation improvements under its Transportation Impact Fee Law (“TIFL”) in Albany Area Builder’s Association v. Town of Guilderland . While the Court did not actually rule on the validity of local impact fees, it concluded that the TIFL was impliedly preempted by the State Legislature’s uniform scheme to regulate highway funding set forth in the Town Law and Highway Law. This decision precludes the use of local impact fees to cover costs associated with roads, sewer, water hook-ups and other infrastructure for which State law already provides a comprehensive regulatory scheme for the financing of these improvements.

Notwithstanding the legal precedents, there are local governments on Long Island that continue to impose what amount to significant, but questionable, impact fees on developers. One such fee is the Town of Brookhaven’s Land Use Intensification Mitigation Fee.  The stated purpose is to mitigate any land use intensification associated with the approval of a change of zoning classification from a more restrictive to a less restrictive use through the acquisition of open space. Depending on the existing and proposed zoning classifications and the size of the site, the law has the potential for imposing significant fees on developers and other landowners within the Town.

While the stated goals of this fee law are undoubtedly laudable, the absence of specific enabling legislation authorizing this fee makes Brookhaven’s law susceptible to legal challenge. A Court could find that the fees charged are not commensurate with the potential demand for additional open space created by the less restrictive zoning and, therefore, fails the “rational nexus” test. A Court may also find that the Town Law provisions authorizing a municipality to require that a parkland be set aside, or impose a fee in lieu of parkland, in connection with site plan and subdivision applications impliedly preempts the Town’s fee law. Of course, it is also possible that a Court could uphold this fee, and Brookhaven’s law may become a model for future local impact fees in New York State.

To date, these fees have not been challenged by developers, who instead are simply paying the fees and capitalize them into the land value. However, depending on the nature of the development, these fees are being passed along by developers to new owners and renters of residential, commercial, industrial, office and retail space, and also to consumers who must ultimately pay more for retail goods and services. While these fees make it easier for a municipality to balance its budget, this short-term benefit pales in comparison to the significant negative impact that these fees can have by driving up the cost of living on Long Island and frustrating the market’s ability to deliver much-needed affordable housing.

In the next segment of this post, we will look at administrative review fees, which are another revenue-generating device used by local governments related to the processing of land use applications that are being assessed on developers, often without regard to the legal limitations on such fees.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR for New York Times Climate change / sea-level rise in Fiji The shoreline of Vunidoloa is heavily eroded due to the rising waters. Vunidoloa is situated on the Natewa Bay on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. Vunidoloa has 140 inhabitants and frequently floods due to the rising waters. The situ ation became so precarious that the government decided to relocate the village. Unfortunately the site was poorly designed and is eroding before anyone moved there.

Asharoken, N.Y. January 10, 2017 — Swayed by public opinion, the Incorporated Village of Asharoken (“Asharoken”) opted out of a federal beach nourishment plan implemented by the Army Corp of Engineers (“ACOE”) in order to prevent the general public from accessing the Villages’ private beaches.

Asharoken is a narrow isthmus connecting the Village of Northport on the ‘mainland’ of Long Island with the hamlet of Eatons Neck, which is part of an unincorporated area located in the Town of Huntington. Asharoken is bordered by Huntington Bay, Northport Bay, and Eatons Neck. The eastern coast of Asharoken fronts along the Long Island Sound.

Asharoken Avenue, the village’s main road, is the only land evacuation route for village residents and about 1,400 non-village residents of Eatons Neck.  Without this land bridge, Eaton’s Neck and Asharoken would both be cut off from the mainland.

Asharoken experiences moderate to severe beach erosion on the areas fronting the Long Island Sound. This erosion is caused by storm-induced waves and wave run-up from hurricanes and nor’easters. The village has experienced damages from multiple storm events, most recently Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

In spite of the known safety risks of their precarious evacuation route, the Asharoken Board of Trustees passed a resolution last Tuesday, effectively opposing a $20 million dune restoration project because of the federal government’s mandate for public access to the beaches when taxpayer dollars are utilized. In order to receive funds for the beach nourishment project, Asharoken would be required to add five public walkways to access the beach and five public parking areas at half-mile intervals along the project’s 2.4-mile stretch along Asharoken Avenue.

Despite a history of rising sea levels, the Asharoken Trustees capitulated to resident outcry over the potential loss of their private beach rights rather than balance their decision on the public health, safety and welfare of the Village and Town residents.

Only time will tell if this game of Russian roulette ends well.

th2WTV7493A recent appellate court case, Matter of Lazarus v Board of Trustees of the Village of Malverne, 31 NYS3d 207 [2d Dept 2016], involves the approval of a special use and the denial of a special exception for the same residential premises. Here are the facts of the case.

The house in question is a two-story single-family Cape Cod style home located in a Residence B district in the Village of Malverne (“Village”).  The owner and her husband live on the second floor and her adult son rents the first floor.   The owner installed a second kitchen on the second floor and constructed a deck and attached exterior staircase without any building permits.  The second-story deck and exterior staircase were initially constructed in 1981.  At the time, a special exception permit was not needed for this structure.  The deck was removed in 2007 and was rebuilt in 2010 with the exterior staircase going from ground level to an entrance on the second floor.

In 2011, the owner sought a special use permit for the existing kitchen on the second floor. She also sought a special exception permit to approve the “mother/daughter” occupancy and to maintain the second-story deck and exterior staircase.  In October 2013, after three public hearings, the Village Board of Trustees (“Village Board”) granted the mother/daughter status and the special use permit to maintain the second-floor kitchen.  However, the Village Board denied the special exception to legalize the second-story deck and exterior staircase.  The owner commenced an Article 78 proceeding against the Village, challenging the decision.

In July 2014, the trial court granted the petition and annulled the determination of the Village Board. The trial court reasoned that by approving the mother/daughter status and the special use permit for the kitchen, the Village Board should have also approved the secondary access point. Otherwise, access to the second story would encroach upon the privacy of the parents and their adult son.  The trial court also noted that the Village could impose appropriate safeguards for the second-story entrance.

The Village appealed and in July 2016, the appellate court reversed and dismissed the proceeding.   The appellate court explained that a use variance allows the property to be used in a manner that is “inconsistent with a local zoning ordinance” and a special exception allows the property to be used in a manner “that is consistent with the zoning ordinance, although not necessarily allowed as of right.”  The owner did not seek a use variance in this instance, but instead, sought a special exception.

The appellate court determined that the Village Zoning Code prohibits decks above the first floor grade of a dwelling and requires a special exception from the Village Board for any deck constructed above the first floor. But in this case, the home owner wasn’t merely asking approval for an above-grade deck.  She was asking for approval of the deck and staircase, deemed a structure by the court.  However, the Village Zoning Code does not explicitly allow for a structure under this special exception provision.  As a result, the appellate court agreed with the Village Board’s determination that the deck/staircase structure was inconsistent with the surrounding single-family neighborhood and, thus, not entitled to a special exception.  Bottom line, the owner was allowed to keep her second-story kitchen but not the second-story deck, staircase and separate entrance.

welcome_bayville_signIn a determination dated June 30, 2016, the Honorable Jerome C. Murphy, Supreme Court, Nassau County, annulled and vacated the Village of Bayville’s local laws amending its zoning code based on the Village’s failure to comply with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”).  See Save Bayville Now, Inc., v Incorporated Village of Bayville.  The challenged local laws, adopted on June 22, 2015, authorized the occupancy of ground floor units with residential apartments in business districts, reduced the required setback from 250 feet to 50 feet for the distance that a combined business/residential use could be from a residentially-zoned parcel and defined a “residential building” as containing five units or more. Previously, residential apartments in this zoning district were only permitted on the second floor, and this type of combined business/residential use was not permitted within 250 feet of residentially-zoned property.

Petitioner, a civic association with at least two of its members residing within 100 and 150 feet of the business district, challenged the adoption of the local laws pursuant to SEQRA. The Court first explained standing in zoning cases. Relying on Matter of Sun-Brite Car Wash v Board of Zoning and Appeals of Town of N. Hempstead, 69 NY2d 406 [1987], which held that “standing principles, which are in the end matters of policy, should not be heavy-handed; in zoning litigation in particular, it is desirable that land use disputes be resolved on their own merits rather than by preclusive, restrictive standing rules.” The Bayville Court first determined that Petitioner had the requisite standing to bring the proceeding, and then went on to determine that SEQRA had not been complied with by the Village when it enacted the local laws.

The Court noted that SEQRA requires local governments to consider environmental impacts of the adoption of local laws by identifying the environmental impacts reasonably anticipated from the proposed action, taking a “hard look” at those areas of environmental concern and providing a reasoned elaboration in connection with the basis of its determination. The civic association alleged that the Village failed to sufficiently review potential impacts from the zoning amendments including traffic and parking issues, septic issues, flooding and flood plain issues, population concentration and the impact on the value of surrounding properties. The Village adopted a negative declaration in connection with the adopted local laws and determined that it would conduct specific SEQRA review in the future upon the application of specific sites within the district. Petitioner argued that this constituted segmentation of the SEQRA process and was unlawful. Segmentation is defined as the “division of the environmental review of an action such that various activities or stages are addressed under this Part as though they were independent, unrelated activities, needing individual determinations of significance.” 6 NYCRR Part 617.2(ag). SEQRA states the following with regard to segmentation:

Considering only a part or segment of an action is contrary to the intent of SEQRA. If a lead agency believes that circumstances warrant a segmented review, it must clearly state in its determination of significance, and any subsequent EIS, the supporting reasons and must demonstrate that such review is clearly no less protective of the environment. Related action should be identified and discussed to the fullest extent possible. 6 NYCRR Part 617.3(g)(1). Id.

The Court determined that the Village acknowledged the potential for “environmental damage” but failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). An EIS provides “a means for agencies, project sponsors, and the public to systematically consider significant adverse environmental impacts, alternatives and mitigation.” 6 NYCRR Part 617.2(n). An EIS is required when the lead agency (in this case the Village) determines that “the action may include the potential for at least one significant adverse environmental impact.” 6 NYCRR Part 617.7(a)(1) (emphasis added). As a result, the Court found that “the Village’s deferred consideration of recognized potential environmental damage” rendered the Village’s adoption of the local laws amending the zoning ordinance “arbitrary, capricious, and not undertaken with regard to the applicable provisions of SEQRA.” The Court annulled and vacated the local laws.

Although not cited by the Court, it bears reminding that courts have long determined the threshold for requiring an EIS is low. See, H.O.M.E.S. v New York State Urban Dev. Corp., 69 AD2d 222, 232 [4th Dept. 1979]; Barrett v Dutchess County Legislature, 38 AD3d 651[2d Dept. 2007].) Therefore, once the Village identified “environmental damage” in connection with the proposed local laws, the preparation of an EIS was required pursuant to SEQRA.

This ruling is consistent with other recent SEQRA segmentation cases involving the adoption of local laws. In Citizens Concerned for Harlem Valley Environment v Town Board of Town of Amenia, 264 AD2d 394 [2d Dept. 1999], leave to appeal denied, 94 NY2d 759 [2000], local laws rezoning property were annulled based upon segmented SEQRA review. In that case, the appellate court determined that “the rezoning at issue was an integral part of a mining proposal that would have obvious potential environmental impacts. The Town Board was obligated to consider these environmental concerns at the time of the rezoning and it failed to do so.” See also, Scenic Hudson, Inc. v Town of Fishkill Town Bd., 258 AD2d 654 [2d Dept. 1999].

In last week’s post, we discussed the case of Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc., v. Village of Pomona. That case involves a contested land use application for a rabbinical college that has cost the Village of Pomona and its taxpayers in excess of $1.5 million in legal fees to defend.  This week’s post looks at the Facebook posts and text messages that were posted and sent after the litigation began, and the sanctions that were imposed by the Court against the Village for its failure to disclose them during discovery.

The Facebook Posts and Text Messages

evidenceIn May 2013, a Village Trustee posted a comment on her personal Facebook page about her disapproval of an all-male gathering of Hasidic/Orthodox Jews at a municipal facility. Their religion was not explicitly mentioned in the Facebook post.  This posting was followed by what the Court described as “an angry text message exchange” between the Village Trustee and the Mayor of the Village, which resulted in the Trustee deleting her Facebook post.

In March 2015, the Mayor posted a comment on his personal Facebook page about an article in a local newspaper. In the posting, the Mayor slammed the 2013  posting by the Trustee (who by then was no longer a Trustee), noted that her 2013 post was particularly egregious in light of the pending lawsuit, was a “total lapse in reason and judgment,” and mentioned that text messages had been exchanged between them at the time.  The Mayor also noted that he couldn’t conceive of anyone considering the former Trustee as a viable candidate if she ever ran for election again, given her “predisposition to making such blatant and inappropriate remarks.”

The Mayor’s Facebook posting was quickly followed by a discovery demand by the plaintiffs asking for all social media postings and comments, including the text message exchange. The Village Defendants responded that the Mayor did not have a copy of the 2013 Trustee Facebook post and produced only a part of the text message exchange.  The part that was produced was an eye-opener.  It had the Mayor asking the Trustee whether it was her “intention to cause damage to the village” and “is it your intent to jeopardize the target…then you are succeeding and may cause us to loose! (sic).”   The portion of the Trustee’s responsive text that was produced noted that the Trustee understood the Mayor’s anger and would review her postings and delete them “to make sure there are no more unfortunate mistakes.”   The Mayor responded that his head was about to explode, that a case in New Jersey found that an official’s comments in a non-official setting led the court to find potential prejudice and publicly commenting on an all-male gathering related to a religious entity “is not good.”

Plaintiffs alleged that the Mayor lied about the preservation of evidence when he certified interrogatory responses in July 2013, two months after the initial Facebook and text message exchange, that all relevant evidence had been preserved by the Village.

The Court Finds The Village Guilty Of Spoliation Of Evidence

In his September 2015 summary judgment decision, the Court ruled that the Village was under an obligation to preserve this evidence. The Court rejected the Village’s contention that its officials did not think the post and texts were relevant, noting that once litigation has commenced, the usual retention procedures must be suspended and a “litigation hold” must be put in place to ensure relevant documents are preserved. In finding the Village guilty of spoliation of evidence, the Court cited to that fact that the lawsuit was commenced in 2007, 6 years before the Trustee’s Facebook page posting, the posting concerned a gathering of individuals of the same religious observation as the plaintiffs, the Mayor’s strong reaction to the posting and the Trustee’s comment about her “unfortunate mistakes” to demonstrate that the Facebook post and text messages should have been preserved and were relevant to the case. The Court also determined that the destruction of this relevant evidence had been done in bad faith.

As a result, the Court ruled that severe sanctions were warranted. These include an adverse inference of the Village’s discriminatory motivation. At trial, the jury will be instructed that the Facebook post indicated discriminatory animus toward the Hasidic Jewish population. While the Village will be allowed to present evidence that the challenged laws were not adopted for discriminatory purposes, the adverse inference may be difficult to overcome. The Court also awarded attorneys fees as a sanction.  In a ruling dated May 25, 2016, the Court directed the Village to pay legal fees totaling $42,940.00 to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Click here to read more about the underlying issues. The matter is scheduled for trial sometime later this year.