Posted On: April 29, 2009

Vacancy Rate Is An Appropriate Criteria In Determining To Issue A Use Variance

In Matter of O’Connell Machinery Co., Inc v. City of Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals, the court affirmed the granting of a use variance based upon the high vacancy rate of the property. The Appellate Division Fourth Department found that the property zoned light industrial was properly granted a variance to permit student housing, a hotel and other residential and commercial uses.

The court held that the owner had proven hardship in “dollars and cents form” by demonstrating that the “property had been substantially vacant for 30 years” that “only 10% to 15% of the space was occupied at the time of the applications and the prospects for expanding occupancy and generating sufficient revenue to cover necessary maintenance, repairs and improvements were marginal.” The court also found that the variance would not “alter the essential character of the neighborhood”, as similar uses “exist in proximity to the property” and the zoning board properly found the hardship was not self created.

Thanks to Alan J. Bozer, Esq. of the Buffalo Office of Phillips Lytle LLP who brought this case to our attention.

Posted On: April 27, 2009

No Vested Rights In Nonconforming Sand and Gravel Mine

In a Fourth Department case we think is worthy of noting, but missed earlier, the Plaintiff claimed that the operation of a sand and gravel mining operation on its 216 acre property was a legal non-conforming use to which it had a vest right. The Appellate Division, in Matter of Glacial Aggregates LLC v. Town of Yorkshire, reversed the judgment after a jury trial finding the Supreme Court should have granted a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case.

The court noted that prior to adoption of its zoning ordinance the Town prohibited mining, absent a special permit. The plaintiff had obtained a mining permit from the DEC, hauled out 40 truck loads of material for testing, cleared the property of trees and performed a number of other activities.

However, the court found these activities did not constitute actual mining but rather the “activities were performed merely in contemplation of mining.” Further, testimony at trial demonstrated that mining could not take place until certain additional work, including paving of a “haul road” were completed. As there was no proof that the property was actually being used for commercial mining, the court found the lower court erred in not issuing a directed verdict that the mining operation was not a legal non-conforming use.

The court also noted that a directed verdict should have issued finding that the plaintiff did not have a vested right in the mining operation. "In New York, a vested right can be acquired when, pursuant to a legally issued permit, the landowner demonstrates a commitment to the purpose for which the permit was granted by effecting substantial changes and incurring substantial expenses to further the development" (Town of Orangetown v Magee, 88 NY2d 41, 47 [1996]; see Matter of Ellington Constr. Corp. v Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Inc. Vil. of New Hempstead, 77 NY2d 114, 122 [1990]).”

Here the testimony was that a total of $800,000 was spent on the project but that $750,000 of that was to acquire the land and obtain the DEC permit. Therefore, the court found that there was not a substantial expenditure in reliance on the permit. Further, since the paving of the road and construction of a bridge necessary to conduct mining operations had not taken place, plaintiff also failed to prove that it had “effected substantial changes…to further development pursuant to a legally issued permit.”

Absent from the analysis is whether the mining permit from the DEC was the same as the "special permit" required by the town and therefore would have been sufficient to create a legal non-conformity, if the other tests of substantial expenditure and substantial change had been met.

Posted On: April 25, 2009

The Lead Agency Has Discretion to Require A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

In Matter of Oyster Bay Associates Limited Partnership v. Town Board of Town of Oyster Bay the Second Department upheld the denial of a special permit. This case has a seven year litigation history with multiple decisions by the Supreme Court and Appellate Division addressing the SEQRA review for a proposed 860,000 square foot mall and an alternate proposal for a 750,000 square foot mall.

The Town had an environmental review committee (TEQR Commission) review the proposal and issue findings under SEQRA recommending approval of the 860,000 square foot mall. The Town Board subsequently directed the TEQR Commission to rescind its findings which was done. Thereafter new SEQRA findings were issued and the application was denied. On appeal the courts remanded the matter for further consideration of a proposal to reduce the mall to 750,000 square feet. The Town then undertook the additional review and, based upon information it identified post-FEIS, directed the applicant to prepare a SEIS and submit plans for a 750,000 square foot mall. Instead the petitioner sued to compel the Town to adopt the original favorable TEQR findings.

In this most recent incarnation, the Appellate Division upheld the Town’s actions noting: “the Town Board properly identified the post-FEIS submissions which supported its deviation from the TEQR Commission's SEQRA findings. The Town Board demonstrated that the post-FEIS submissions identified areas such as traffic impacts, impacts on existing retail facilities, and impacts on residential real estate values in the surrounding area which supported its determination.“ Further holding that “the Supreme Court erred in determining that the Town Board's request that the petitioners prepare an SEIS was arbitrary and capricious. The Town Board, as the lead agency, "may require a supplemental EIS, limited to the specific significant adverse environmental impacts not addressed or inadequately addressed in the EIS that arise from: (a) changes proposed for the project; or (b) newly discovered information; or (c) a change in circumstances related to the project" (6 NYCRR 617.9 [a] [7] [i]; Matter of Riverkeeper, Inc. v Planning Bd. of Town of Southeast, 9 NY3d at 231).”

Posted On: April 13, 2009

Road Improvement Serving Primarily Commercial Vehicles Does not Defeat Eminent Domain

The Appellate Division held that taking of private property by eminent domain fulfilled a public purpose even though the taking primarily benefited commercial traffic. In the Matter of 225 Front Street, Ltd. v. City of Binghamton the court noted the limited scope of judicial review of a proceeding under the EDPL which "must focus on "whether the proceeding was in conformity with constitutional requirements, whether the proposed acquisition is within the statutory jurisdiction or authority of the condemnor, whether the condemnor's determination and findings were made in accordance with the procedures set forth in EDPL article 2 and ECL article 8, and whether a proposed [public] use, benefit or purpose will be served by the proposed acquisition."

Here the Court found that the purpose of acquiring the petitioner's property was to facilitate road improvements in order to resolve traffic congestion in the City. Petitioner argued that the taking served no public purpose but was for the private benefit of commercial traffic. The court held: "[p]utting aside the fact that commercial use of public highways has obvious public benefits, there can be no doubt but that where an intersection of two public roadways is constructed in such a way that some vehicles cannot safely negotiate it, all vehicular traffic that utilizes the area is obviously affected. This project, as designed, seeks to address such a concern and, as such, has a public purpose."