Appellate Court Holds Plaintiffs’ Challenges to SEQRA and Rezoning Determinations Were Moot

In 2012, defendant PCP Watervliet, LLC, a subsidiary of defendant Nigro Companies, purchased property in the City of Watervliet from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany County.  The property contained an unused church, school and rectory. Nigro petitioned the City Council to rezone the parcel from residential to commercial and, following public hearings, the City issued a negative declaration and amended its zoning map.  Individuals then brought this challenge alleging that the City failed to comply with SEQRA, engaged in illegal spot zoning, and violated the Open Meetings Law.  The trial court granted defendants' motions for summary judgment and dismissed the amended complaint, and Plaintiffs appealed.

As a preliminary matter on appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department found that plaintiffs Carol and Patrick Falaro presumptively established their standing to challenge the City's determinations.  As their residence is immediately across the street from Nigro's parcel, they will suffer direct harm different from the general public, even absent allegations of individual harm.  Despite this, the Court held that the Plaintiffs' challenges to the SEQRA and rezoning determinations were moot.  Plaintiffs failed to seek any injunctive relief from the Court during the pendency of their appeal, and because of this the church buildings had already been demolished, and the proposed grocery store was fully constructed and operational. Furthermore, the rezoning determination was superseded by the City's adoption of a new zoning code in which Nigro's use of the parcel is permitted as a right, and Plaintiffs did not challenge that code. Accordingly, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claim as moot.

The case was Citizens for St. Patrick's v City of Watervliet City Counsel, 126 A.D.3d 1159 (3d Dep’t 2015).

Fourth Department Holds Petitioners Fell Within The Zone Of Interest Protected by SEQRA And Did Not Need To Plead Or Prove Special Damage To Have Standing

Petitioners, Rochester Eastside Residents for Appropriate Development, Inc. and Igatopsfy, LLC, commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to annul the negative declaration issued by Respondent City of Rochester Director of Planning and Zoning under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) with respect to the proposed construction of an ALDI supermarket. The Supreme Court, Monroe County denied the petition after finding the Petitioners lacked standing.  Petitioners appealed. 

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, found that the record established that Petitioner Igatopsfy, LLC, which owned property less than 300 feet from the property line of the proposed project, was “arguably within the zone of interest to be protected by SEQRA,” and had standing to seek judicial review without pleading and proving special damage.  The Court further found that Petitioner Rochester Eastside Residents for Appropriate Development, Inc. had “associational or organizational standing,” as two of its members owned property less than 500 feet from the property line of the proposed project.  Having met the other requirements for associational standing, the standing of these two members was deemed sufficient to grant standing to the organization.

Turning to the merits, the Court agreed with Petitioners’ claim that the negative declaration lacked a “reasoned elaboration of the basis for the determination.”  The record showed that despite undisputed evidence of preexisting soil contamination, the negative declaration set forth no findings with respect to that contamination.  Moreover, the document providing the purported reasoning for the lead agency’s determination of significance was prepared after the negative declaration was issued, violating the statutory mandate, and did not fulfill the statutory mandate.  As strict compliance with SEQRA’s procedures is mandatory, these failures mandated annulment of the lead agency’s determination. Finally, the Court noted that developer’s promise to remediate the contamination before proceeding with construction did not absolve the lead agency from its obligations under SEQRA.

Accordingly, the Court reversed, annulled the negative declaration, vacated the variances granted by the City’s ZBA, as well as the special use permit granted by respondent Rochester City Planning Commission.

The case was Rochester Eastside Residents for Appropriate Development, Inc. v City of Rochester, 150 A.D.3d 1678 (4th Dep’t 2017).

Second Department Finds Insufficient Evidence In Record For Board’s Denial of Petitioner’s Site Plan Application To Have Rational Basis

Petitioner owned a medical office building in the Village of Airmont, with a single means of ingress and egress on the premises’ south side. Petitioner applied for approval of an amended site plan to add additional parking, improve drainage, and add a second means of ingress and egress on the north side of the premises. The Planning Board of the Village of Airmont denied the application on April 24, 2014, but upon reconsideration on May 8, 2014, the Board approved the amended site plan after removing the additional access point for ingress and egress. Petitioner commenced the instant CPLR Article 78 proceeding to review the April 24, 2014, determination or, alternatively, the May 8, 2014 to the extent it eliminated the new access point. The Supreme Court denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding.  Petitioner appealed.

The Appellate Division, Second Department found that the only evidence in the record addressing the traffic and safety issues cited by the Board’s determination was the conclusory opposition of neighbors.  This view was not supported by any of the Village's consultants, and was contradicted by the negative SEQRA declaration adopted by the Board.  As such, the Court held that the record lacked sufficient evidence to support the Board’s determinations as having a rational basis to deny the application, and remitted the matter to the Board for the approval of Petitioner's amended site plan, with the condition that it would provide an amended site plan with a one-way, entrance-only access via DeBaun Avenue.

The case was Ramapo Pinnacle Properties, LLC v. Village of Airmont, 145 A.D.3d 729 (2d Dep’t 2016).

Appellate Court Reverses Summary Judgment Grant Voiding Village Comprehensive Plan and Parts of the Zoning Amendments

Petitioners/Plaintiffs commenced an Article 78 proceeding to review resolutions adopting the Comprehensive Plan for the Village of Woodbury (“Comprehensive Plan”) and Local Law Nos. 3 and 4 of 2011 of the Village of Woodbury (“Zoning Amendments”).  Petitioners also sought a judgment declaring that the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Amendments were void and unenforceable, alleging that the Village of Woodbury Board of Trustees failed to strictly comply with the procedural and substantive mandates of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and with General Municipal Law § 239–m. Finally, as their fourth cause of action, Petitioners alleged that the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Amendments amounted to unconstitutional exclusionary zoning.  Respondents/Defendants Village of Woodbury, the Board of Trustees, the Planning Board, and Gary Thomasberger moved to dismiss the fourth cause of action. The Supreme Court converted the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment, and granted petitioners/plaintiffs summary judgment on the fourth cause of action. The court also granted the petition to annul the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendments. Respondents/Defendants appealed.

On appeal, the court first noted that 6 NYCRR 617.6(a)(4) permits an agency to waive the requirement for an environmental assessment form (hereinafter EAF) if a draft environmental impact statement is prepared. As a draft environmental impact statement was prepared here, the failure to prepare an EAF did not amount to a failure to comply with SEQRA's procedures. Also, the Board of Trustees satisfied SEQRA's substantive requirements by analyzing a reasonable range of alternatives. Thus, the Court found that the Supreme Court should have denied the petition to annul the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendments with respect to the Board of Trustees’ compliance with SEQRA.

As to the alleged failure to comply with General Municipal Law § 239–m, the Court found no evidence in the record contradicting the Village Planner's claim that the final action report was submitted after the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendments were enacted.  Furthermore, the revisions to the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendments after referral were “embraced within the original referral.” The Court therefore held that the Supreme Court should have denied the petition to annul the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendments for noncompliance General Municipal Law § 239–m.

Finally, the Court found triable issues of fact existed as to whether the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendments amounted to unconstitutional exclusionary zoning. Thus, the Supreme Court properly denied the appellants' motion for summary judgment as to the fourth cause of action, but erred in awarding summary judgment to the petitioners/plaintiffs.

The case was Village of Kiryas Joel v. Village of Woodbury, 138 A.D.3d 1008 (2d Dep’t 2016).

Third Department Holds Owner Did Not Abandon Nonconforming Use

In 2012, Respondent North High Realty Holdings, Inc.  (“NHRH”) purchased real property in the Town of Queensbury, Warren County, within a commercial intensive zoning district that prohibited single-family residences. The property consisted of a commercial building and a single-family dwelling as a lawful preexisting nonconforming use. After purchasing the property, NHRH sought a variance to continue using the single-family dwelling as a residence. Respondent Town of Queensbury Zoning Administrator determined that a variance was unnecessary as NHRH had submitted evidence that the single-family dwelling had been used as a residence without an interruption of more than 18 consecutive months.  Thus, the preexisting nonconforming use had not been discontinued. Petitioner, a neighboring property owner, appealed the decision to the ZBA, which affirmed the ruling, and then filed suit to review the ZBA determination.  The Supreme Court reversed, finding the wrong legal standard has been applied, and Respondents appealed.

On appeal, the Third Department noted that the language of the Town Code unambiguously set forth that cessation of the preexisting nonconforming use, not the use itself, must occur continuously and without interruption for 18 months.  Thus, the determination was factual and owed deference, and was not, as the lower court held, pure legal interpretation of the Code. The Court found that the ZBA's decision was neither irrational nor unreasonable, as conflicting evidence was presented at public hearings as to whether the preexisting nonconforming use had been discontinued and abandoned. For example, evidence was presented that the owner's son stayed at the dwelling with the apparent intent to retain it as a residence with at least some degree of permanency. This finding provided evidence that a complete cessation of the use had not occurred. Accordingly, the Court found no basis to disturb the ZBA's determination, and reversed the Supreme Court’s decision.

The case was Lumberjack Pass Amusements, LLC v. Town of Queensbury, 145 A.D.3d 1144 (3d Dep’t 2016).

Third Department Holds That BZA’s Tie Vote On Special Use Permit Constitutes A Non-Action

Respondent Rock Solid Development, LLC (“Rock Solid”) applied to Respondent Town of Copake Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) for a special use permit in connection with the proposed construction of a resort hotel on land owned by Respondent Catamount Development Corporation (“CDC”) and located in the Town of Copake.  While the application was pending, a vacancy opened on the five-member ZBA.  In September 2014, the four remaining members split 2-2 on whether to grant Rock Solid’s application.  As there was no majority vote, the ZBA was deemed not to have acted.  In November 2014, after the vacancy was filled, the ZBA granted Rock Solid's application in a 3-2 vote.  Petitioners, who own and operate an inn and restaurant on the adjacent property commenced this CPLR article 78 proceeding claiming, among other things, that the September 2014 tie vote was a default denial of Rock Solid's application. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition, and Petitioners appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department affirmed the lower court’s ruling.   Writing that it could find no fault with the Supreme Court’s decision, the Court noted that the lower court correctly determined that under the 2002 amendments to Town law § 267-a, “a tie vote of a zoning board of appeals only results in a default denial when, among other things, it is exercising its appellate jurisdiction.”  Furthermore, the Court confirmed that it is the Town Law, and not the ZBA by-laws, which control under these circumstances. 

Here, the ZBA was exercising its original jurisdiction.  Thus, the tie vote constituted a non-action.  The Petitioner’s remaining claims, which included that the new ZBA member was not adequately informed and that the ZBA’s interpretation of the Town Code was irrational, were rejected as without merit.

The case was Matter of Alper Restaurant Inc. v. Town of Copake Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 149 A.D.3d 1337 (3d Dep’t 2017).

Court Holds All Property Owners Not Automatically Necessary Parties To Rezoning Challenge

Respondent Town Board of the Town of Coeymans passed Local Law No. 4, which reclassified the permitted use of nine contiguous parcels from residential-agricultural use to industrial use.  Petitioners commenced a hybrid Article 78 / declaratory judgment action to annul the local law based on, among other things, allegations that the procedures to adopt the ordinance violated the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”).  Respondents moved to dismiss on the grounds Petitioners failed to join necessary parties, specifically all property owners of rezoned parcels who had their rights affected by the law. The trial court denied the motion, but held that the property owners were necessary parties and ordered they be served with a notice of petition and petition, and Petitioners filed an amended petition adding the owners as respondents (“newly-added respondents”). Afterwards, Respondents and some newly-added respondents separately moved to dismiss on the grounds that the amended petition was time-barred as to the newly-added respondents under CPLR § 217(1), which provides a four-month statute of limitations. Petitioners conceded untimely service, but reserved their right to challenge on appeal the prior determination that the newly-added respondents were necessary parties. The trial court then dismissed the amended petition as time-barred.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department reversed, finding the newly-added respondents were not necessary parties simply because the ordinance affected their property rights, writing “it is notable that the Court of Appeals and this state's appellate courts, including this Court, have long entertained challenges to municipalities' legislative actions in regard to zoning ordinances without requiring the joinder of every property owner whose rights are affected by the ordinance at issue.” The Court continued that “[a]lthough this Court has, in limited cases, found property owners to be necessary parties in regard to legal challenges to municipal ordinances that affect the property owners' rights, it has only done so in cases where the owners had obtained an actual approval pursuant to the challenged zoning ordinance that would be adversely impacted by a judgment annulling that ordinance.” Here, the Court found that the newly-added respondents did not fall into that previously recognized category, and further declined to adopt a new rule stating that those affected by an ordinance are necessary parties when that ordinance is challenged.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the amended petition on the grounds that the the newly-added respondents were not necessary parties, and thus the amended petition was not time-barred.

The case was Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. v. Town Board of the Town of Coeymans, 144 A.D.3d 1274 (3d Dep’t 2016).

Appellate Court Upholds Denial of Petitions Due to Lack of Standing

Petitioners leased and operated a gas station and convenience store on a piece of property adjacent to the property owned by Respondent R & D Hotel. Respondent R &D proposed a redevelopment project on its property to remove the existing hotel structures and create and lease four new buildings, along with new parking and utilities, for a fast food restaurant, a fueling station with a kiosk for staff, a bank/retail building, and a three-story hotel. Petitioners commenced two proceedings challenging determinations made by Respondents Town of Poughkeepsie Planning Board (“Board”) and Town of Poughkeepsie Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) with regard to the proposed project. The Supreme Court denied the petitions and dismissed the proceedings on the ground that Petitioners lacked standing. Petitioners appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the dismissal due to lack of standing. Petitioners alleged that they hand standing “on the basis of proximity, issues and interests within the zone of interests, and adverse impacts including: traffic impacts, impacts arising from issues of compliance with the land use laws, rules, regulations, and procedures of the town, community character impacts, and access issues related to an interconnection between the subject property and the petitioners’ property.” However, the Court found Petitioners failed to establish that they would suffer any harm that was distinct from that of the community at large. Furthermore, Petitioners did not have standing on the basis of any alleged access issues related to an interconnection between the subject property and their own, as they failed to establish any right of access and failed to allege any potential adverse impact of the interconnection's closure. Accordingly, the Court held that the Supreme Court properly denied the petitions and dismissed the proceedings.

The case was CPD NY Energy Corp. v. Town of Poughkeepsie Planning Bd., 139 A.D.3d 942 (2d Dep’t 2016).

N.D.N.Y. Denies Motion to Dismiss Equal Protection and Conspiracy Claims Against Ex-Wife and Town Officials

Plaintiff commenced the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging Defendants, his ex-wife and Town of Delhi officials (“Defendants”), violated his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The Court granted Defendants' motions to dismiss with leave to amend certain claims, and Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. Defendants then moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint.

Plaintiff's Amended Complaint identifies to two comparators, individuals who allegedly “constructed buildings without first obtaining a permit, and were, after being notified by the Town of the need for a permit ... granted permits with no prosecution.” The first was Plaintiff’s ex-wife. The prior Court concluded that, despite being equally responsible for building the structures but facing no punishment, Plaintiff had not alleged that his ex-wife was a proper comparator because he had failed to allege that any of the Defendants were actually involved in the decision not to prosecute her. Even so, the court held that if the allegations in the Amended Compliant were proven, it would indicate that the decision to only prosecute Plaintiff for violating the zoning ordinances was the result of an agreement between the Defendants, the prosecutor, and the Town Justice. Accordingly, the Court held that Plaintiff alleged a plausible class-of-one equal protection claim, and that his ex-wife was a valid comparator.

As to the state law claims, unlike Plaintiff's earlier allegations, where his ex-wife only reported violations and the other Defendants acted independently to prosecute them, Plaintiff now alleged that she knowingly and actively participated in a careful scheme to bring false allegations against him and played a specific role in ensuring that those allegations damaged him.  The Court found this change was “just enough” to survive the motion to dismiss.

The Court did, however, dismiss Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claim, finding that the case against him ended when Plaintiff and the Town entered into an agreement to withdraw the appeals. As the law clearly states that a termination is not favorable “if the charge is withdrawn or the prosecution abandoned pursuant to a compromise with the accused,” Plaintiff has failed to prove the favorable termination element of a malicious prosecution. Finally, Plaintiff's conspiracy claim under Section 1983 survived the Defendant’s motion to dismiss when viewed in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff.

The case was Telian v Town of Delhi, 2015 WL 2249975 (N.D.N.Y. May 13, 2015).

Eastern District Holds Law Requiring Utility Pole Warning Signs Violates First Amendment

In 2014, the Town of North Hempstead (“Town”) passed a law requiring warning signs on utility poles in the Town.  As part of a larger project, the Long Island Power Authority (“LIPA”) and PSEG Long Island LLC (“PSEG”) placed new utility poles along existing rights-of-way.  The new poles, like the old poles, were treated with pentachlorophenol (“Penta”), a chemical used to prevent damage to the wood.  In April 2014, opponents of the project discovered EPA information suggesting that Penta was harmful to human health.  The following month, the Town began considering laws to require the posting of warning signs on the poles, and such a bill was approved in September 2014.

In January 2015, LIPA and PSEG commenced an action in federal court, alleging the law violated State and Federal freedom of speech.  Specifically, they claimed that the local law was vague, overbroad, and preempted by state statutes giving the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) jurisdiction over Penta and other pesticides.

On a motion for summary judgment, the Court held that the warning signs constituted noncommercial speech, for which the government’s ability to compel mandatory disclosures is far more limited.  As the Court wrote, “the warning signs bear no discernible relationship to the Plaintiffs’ products, services, or other commercial interests, and are therefore outside the purview of the commercial speech doctrine.”  The Court also found that the signs were not government speech, as the government was not the speaker on the signs and did not appropriate funds to transmit the message.

Applying strict scrutiny, the Court found that the Town lacked a compelling interest in the warning signs, and accordingly that the law was not narrowly tailored to achieve a governmental interest.  The Court suggested that the Town could have chosen to convey its message through television advertising, public education campaigns, or signs on public property.  The Court also rejected the Town’s claims that placing warning signs on the utility poles was more effective, as the Town did not establish that there was a serious public safety concern, and further failed to provide evidence supporting the efficacy of its chosen method of addressing any such concerns.

The case was PSEG Long Island LLC v. Town of North Hempstead, 158 F.Supp.3d 149 (E.D.N.Y. 2016)

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