Split zoned parcels can be a headache for property owners and practitioners.  In general, a split zoned parcel is a piece of land located in two or more zoning districts and divided by a zoning district boundary line.  Often these split zoned parcels are found at interfaces between commercial and residential uses or other areas of transition in the municipality.

Throughout New York, most zoning codes provide various ways to handle such conditions, often allowing applicants to extend one district or its permitted uses over a portion of the other district without needing to apply for a change  of zone.  Problems for applicants and practitioners arise when the proposed use on the property is prohibited on the other side of the  zoning boundary line.  Under those circumstances, applicants may face hostile boards or opponents claiming that because such use is prohibited in one of the districts, it requires a use variance.  As a use variance can often be an insurmountable hurdle, practitioners must carefully craft a record to support the proposed use for a split zoned parcel.

Recently, in  the City of Saratoga Springs, a neighboring restaurant owner sued to block a proposed pet kennel, claiming it required a use variance because kennels were prohibited in one of the two zones that split the property.  In other words, the restaurant owner was claiming that the prohibited tail was wagging the permitted dog.  Unfortunately, the restaurant owner was barking up the wrong tree, and in June of 2018, the Appellate Division affirmed the City of Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) determination that a use variance was not required for the proposed kennel project and granted the necessary area variances See, Wen Mei Lu v. City of Saratoga Springs—N.Y.S.33D —(3d Dept 2018).

In Wen Mei Lu, Pet Lodges Inc. submitted an application to the City’s Building Inspector in 2016, seeking approval of the proposed construction of a pet boarding facility.  The 6,000-square-foot kennel facility was planned for a 1.6 acre parcel of land that was split zoned Rural Residence and Tourist Related Business (TRB).  The smaller rear portion of the property, zoned Rural Residential, allows for animal kennels, but the TRB zone that comprises the larger portion of the property fronting on State Route 9, prohibits the use.

The application was denied by the City’s Building Department on the ground that the project required area variances for certain setback issues.  Pet Lodges Inc. then applied to the ZBA for area variance relief.  At the hearing, the restaurant owner’s attorney submitted letters and testimony claiming, among other things, that the kennel required a use variance, because it was a prohibited use in the TRB zone, and was fundamentally inconsistent with the permitted uses such as service establishments, eating and drinking establishments and bed and breakfasts.

The Appellate Division, in finding that the ZBA rationally determined a use variance was not required, noted that although kennels are prohibited in the TRB zone, under the City’s zoning ordinance, where a zoning district boundary line divides a lot or land, the district requirements on either side of the boundary may be construed, at the property owner’s option, as extending 100 feet into the remaining portions of the property.  Here, the applicant chose to extend the Rural Residential district where kennels are permitted into the TRB commercial zone where kennels are prohibited.

Finding that such an extension of a zoning boundary did not require a use variance, the Court went on to hold that the ZBA’s determination to grant the necessary area variances had a rational basis in the record.  The Court also determined that while a small portion of the facility’s parking area and driveway will lie within the TRB district, the ZBA rationally found that such accessory uses were not prohibited under the zoning ordinance.   The Court noted that ZBAs are “invested with the power to vary zoning regulations in specific cases in order to avoid unnecessary hardship or practical difficulties arising from a literal application of the zoning law.”

Given the potential complexities associated with split zoned properties, this decision provides some clarity as to what the courts and zoning boards are considering when faced with split zoned lots.

 

 

 

General Municipal Law §239-m requires that before taking action on a land use application, a municipal agency like a Zoning Board of Appeals or Planning Board must refer the application to a county or regional planning commission for its recommendation. This referral and receipt of comments and recommendations from the planning commission is no longer just a nicety. It is jurisdictional.

Any variance or site plan or other land use approval is null and void if the approving agency has not followed this referral procedure. e.g., Ernalex Constr. Realty Corp v. City of Glen Cove, 681 N.Y.S. 2d 296 [2d Dept.1998]; 24 Franklin Ave. R.E. Corp. v. Heaship, 30 N.Y.S.3d 695 [2d Dept. 2016].

Moreover, the statute of limitations does not even begin to run to challenge an agency action (the grant of a variance, for example) if the variance is jurisdictionally defective because the referral procedure was not followed. e.g., Hampshire Mgt. Co., No. 20, LLC v. Feiner, 860 N.Y.S.3d 714 [2d Dept. 2008].

Old news.

So, what happens if an agency grants a variance without following the referral procedure and then, perhaps realizing its mistake, grants an amended variance where it does make the proper referral to the planning commission?

In Fichera v. NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, 74 N.Y.S.3d 422 [4th Dept. 2018], the Fourth Department held that the original and the amended variances were both null and void. The applicant had received variances from the Town’s ZBA, and permits from the DEC needed to conduct mining. The ZBA and the applicant argued that the time to challenge the original variance had run and that the amended variance was perfectly fine because the referral process had been diligently followed.

The Appellate Division disagreed. First, the Court applied the “old news” rules above to find that the original variance was jurisdictionally defective because of the failure to follow the referral process. Then, they also held that the same jurisdictional defect tolled the statute of limitations so that the challenge to the original variance was timely. Therefore, the original variance was vacated as jurisdictionally defective.
What about the amended variance? Shouldn’t that be upheld because there was a proper referral and, therefore, no jurisdictional defect?

Not so fast, said the Court. The applicant’s problem was that the ZBA relied on the initial variance in granting the amended one: “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the ZBA’s approval of the amended variance is likewise null and void. . . .

One factor that appears to be important is that the planning commission had strongly recommended that the variance be denied. A zoning board can override the commission’s recommendation by a super-majority vote. Here, the ZBA had voted unanimously to override the commission’s recommendation to deny the amended variance. No good, said the Court: “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

The applicant’s and the ZBA’s problem, it appears, is that they took a short cut to rely on the original variance, at least in part, in deciding to approve the amended variance. In retrospect, they should have made a new determination. The Court agreed and remitted the matter back to the ZBA “for a new determination on petitioner’s application.”

Hindsight is always accurate, and the impetus to avoid re-hashing materials already reviewed is understandable. But the short cut here, especially in light of the opposition from the planning commission and organized concerned citizens, lead to a long road. A good lesson.

Recently Farrell Fritz, P.C. represented a family held limited liability company in connection with an application to a East End zoning board of appeals to maintain an eight (8) foot fence and six (6) foot driveway gates around its property in Sagaponack.   See, 79 Parsonage LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Incorporated Village of Sagaponack.  Both the fence and a portion of the applicant’s gates violated the Village of Sagaponack’s six (6) foot height limitation.

On behalf of the applicant, Farrell Fritz argued that a fence was necessary to exclude a family of deer that had taken up residence on the property.  Exclusion of the deer was necessary as one member of the household had suffered through two bouts of Lyme’s Disease. In addition, the fence was constructed among mature vegetation and was not visible from the street.

Despite those and additional arguments offered at the hearing, the Sagaponack Zoning Board denied the application.

On behalf of the property owner, Farrell Fritz commenced an Article 78 proceeding in the New York State Supreme Court, Suffolk County, appealing the Zoning Board’s Decision.

On December 15, 2017, Justice Gerard W. Asher, J.S.C. overturned the Zoning Board’s denial and directed the Board to issue the requested variances finding that the applicant overcame the presumption afforded to Zoning Boards in deciding zoning cases. Through the Article 78, Farrell Fritz demonstrated that no evidence existed to support the Zoning Board’s decision; and its findings were conclusory, and therefore irrational and arbitrary and capricious. Judge Asher agreed with the application that the fence was hidden, and a grant would benefit the applicant because one of the two members already suffered from Lyme’s Disease. After making the findings, Judge Asher vacated and annulled the ZBA determination.

What Judge Asher makes clear in his Decision, and should be considered by all practitioners, is that zoning boards must balance all of the relevant considerations in a rational way.

In Fichera, et al. v. New York State Dep’t of Envt’l Conserv., et al., decided last month, Petitioners commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to void actions taken and determinations made by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Sterling (“Sterling ZBA”) and to enjoin the advancement of a mine project (“Mine Project”). Below, the Supreme Court, County of Cayuga, denied the petition and granted various motions to dismiss. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that (1) the petition was timely and (2) the Supreme Court erred by dismissing the cause of action based upon a violation of  New York General Municipal Law section 239-m (“Section 239-m”) and by not granting the petition thereupon. The appeals court remitted the matter back to the Sterling ZBA.

As pertinent to the appeal, the Article 78 petition claimed that the Sterling ZBA violated Section 239-m when it granted the Mine Project owners’ original application for an area variance without referring the matter to the appropriate county planning agency or regional planning council. Therefore, petitioners argued, the Sterling ZBA’s action in granting the area variance application was deemed null and void. Petitioners further argued that the Sterling ZBA’s sua sponte decision to grant the Mine Project owners an amended area variance based upon its previous determination on the original application was also null and void.

In opposition to the petition, respondents argued that the challenge to the determination granting the initial area variance was time-barred because petitioners failed to commence their challenge within 30 days of the original determination, as required by New York Town Law section 267-c(1). In addition, respondents contended that the determination granting the subsequent amended area variance was made by the Sterling ZBA after it made the appropriate referrals required by Section 239-m.

The appeals court agreed with the petitioners and emphasized the jurisdictional importance of complying with Section 239-m in declaring the Sterling ZBA’s approvals null and void. In many instances, Section 239-m requires a municipal agency to refer an application to a county or regional planning board for its recommendation prior to the agency taking final action on an application for land use approval. The Sterling ZBA did not refer the initial application for an area variance to the Cayuga County Planning Board before taking final action with respect to that application. Failure to comply with Section 239-m is not a mere procedural irregularity; rather, it is a jurisdictional defect involving the validity of a legislative act. Accordingly, the Sterling ZBA’s failure to refer the initial application to the county planning board renders the approval null and void.

Moreover, the appeals court held that the Sterling ZBA’s determination in granting the subsequent amended area variance was also null and void. “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the [Sterling] ZBA’s approval of the amended area variance is likewise null and void.”

Notably, if the county or regional planning board recommends modifications or disapproves an application, then the referring body cannot act otherwise – except by a vote of majority plus one of all members. Here, the Sterling ZBA unanimously approved the grant of the amended area variance and the respondents argued that the unanimous approval of the amended area variance was sufficient to override any recommendation by Cayuga County Planning Board to disapprove or modify (had the Sterling ZBA referred in the first place). “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the [Sterling] ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

Lastly, the appeals court found that the Article 78 petition was timely, despite having been brought well-after the Sterling ZBA’s determination respecting the initial area variance application. The filing of a jurisdictionally defective document does not commence the statute of limitations. Therefore, the statute of limitations never ran and the petition was timely.

The Appellate Division modified the Supreme Court’s judgment in conformance with its opinion (discussed above) and remitted the matter to the Sterling ZBA for a new determination on the area variance application.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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 the Village of Bayville, New York (“Village”), a landowner wished to enclose and protect private property (“Lot 18”) , including the roadway thereon, against trespassers and traffic.  The landowner sought to erect crash gates on both sides of its property and across the roadway to prevent public access.  The road upon Lot 18 forms a part of Shore Road (connecting the public part of the roadway north of Lot 18 with Godfrey Avenue farther to the south).  Notably, Lot 18 abuts Mill Neck Creek and preventing traffic and access across the portion of Shore Road located upon Lot 18 may provide unfettered access to the water.

In the summer of 2013, the landowner made applications to the building inspector for a fence permit to construct two twelve-foot wide crash gates across Shore Road at the north and south sides of Lot 18.  The building inspector denied the applications and the landowner appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals (“Board”).  The Board denied the landowner’s appeal and the landowner commenced a hybrid Article 78 proceeding/action in the Supreme Court against the building inspector and the Board.

In addition to seeking a reversal of the denials and demanding issuance of the building permit for the fences, the landowner sought damages for inverse condemnation.  The landowner argued that the Village had exercised a taking by allowing public access through the private property and upon the private roadway (especially because the building inspector and the Board denied the landowner’s rights to prevent such access).

The trial court issued an initial decision of June 2014, inter alia,  (i) denying the landowner’s petition to reverse the denials and (ii) granting the building inspector’s and the Board’s motions to dismiss, including for failure to state a cause of action for inverse condemnation.  Afterwards, however, the trial court granted the landowner’s application for leave to reargue.  Upon reargument, the trial court’s later decision of December 2014, as clarified by its order of March 2015, affirmed its initial decision – except it denied the motion to dismiss the landowner’s claim for inverse condemnation.  The building inspector and the Board appealed the March 2015 clarification order.

Last month, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the trial court’s March 2015 clarification order.  The appeals court noted that “[t]he cause of action [for inverse condemnation] should not have been dismissed since [sic], inter alia, it stated a cause of action to recover for damages . . . .”  Accordingly, the landowner can pursue its cause of action for inverse condemnation against the Village where public access upon and across private property is sanctioned by denial of the ability to enclose and protect it.

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.