Posted On: October 25, 2012

Interpretation of Ambiguous Language in Zoning Ordinance a Question of Fact

The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of summary judgment in an action by a town, seeking to enjoin the use of a property as being in violation of the local zoning ordinance. In Matter of Town of Huntington v. Braun, the court explained the zoning ordinance permits florist shops and nurseries with accessory greenhouses that are defined "as '[a]n agricultural enterprise wherein trees or shrubs or other ornamental plants are field-grown for profit.'" The Town claims the business is not in compliance because it sells products that are not "field-grown."

The Court concluded:

"Possible ambiguities in zoning ordinances are to be construed against the municipality which has enacted them and seeks to enforce them (see Town of Riverhead v Gezari, 63 AD3d 1042; Matter of Rattner v Planning Commn. of Vil. of Pleasantville, 156 AD2d 521, 527; Town of Huntington v Barracuda Transp. Co., 80 AD2d 555). Construction of ambiguous language is an issue of fact that cannot be decided on a motion for summary judgment (see DiLorenzo v Estate Motors, Inc., 22 AD3d 630, 631; Leon v Lukash, 121 AD2d 693, 694).

Here, the Supreme Court properly determined that triable issues of fact regarding ambiguities in the definitions of permitted uses of the premises existed, precluding the award of summary judgment"

-Steven M. Silverberg

Posted On: October 23, 2012

Court of Appeals Requires Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

The N.Y. Court of Appeals has directed the New York City School Construction Authority to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to detail its ongoing management of remediation measures at a brownfield site where it proposed to construct a campus for four public schools. In Matter of Bronx Committee for Toxic Free Schools v. New York City School Construction Authority, the Court held that the failure of the Authority to subject its ongoing management plan for the site to scrutiny pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) violated the purposes and intent of the regulations and required the preparation of a Supplemental Impact Statement.

SEQRA review by the Authority was initially challenged for failure to include in the EIS a description of the long term site management plan. The Authority did not argue that the long term plan was not an important environmental consideration but instead took the position that: "...the plan must be governed by post-remediation soil and groundwater conditions" that could not be assessed until after the site cleanup was complete. The Supreme Court therefore treated this position as an admission that the long term management should be addressed and directed that once the plan was completed that a Supplemental EIS should be prepared.

Thereafter, the Authority prepare a long term management plan that was submitted to and approved by the DEC, but no Supplemental EIS was prepared. Instead, the Authority to moved to renew and reargue asserting that the preparation of the long term plan and sign-off by DEC were sufficient and no further SEQRA review was necessary. The lower courts disagreed with the Authority's position.

In affirming the lower courts the Court of Appeals noted:

"We do not view this case as a dispute over how much detail must be included in an EIS, or over whether events occurring after the EIS was filed were significant enough to call for a supplement. If those were the issues, we would defer to any reasonable judgment made by the Authority (see Matter of Eadie v Town Bd. of N. Greenbush, 7 NY3d 306, 318-319 [2006]; Webster Assoc. v Town of Webster, 59 NY2d 220, 227-229 [1983]). But the Authority does not assert that, in its judgment, the maintenance and monitoring measures were relatively minor details that the public did not need to know about. The Authority has not disputed petitioners' showing that these measures were "essential" to protecting the site's occupants from dangerous contaminants.

The Authority seems instead to be arguing that it should not have to describe the long-term maintenance and monitoring measures in a supplemental EIS because (1) it reasonably chose not to decide on those measures before its EIS was filed and (2) it adequately described them in the site management plan approved by the DEC as part of the Brownfield Program. Both of these arguments lack merit. "

The Court noted that while, without deciding, it appears the conclusion to postpone preparing the long term management plan was reasonable it "...does not mean, however, that mitigation measures of undisputed importance may escape the SEQRA process."

The Court concluded:

"Nor does the submission of the site management plan to the DEC, or the approval of that plan as part of the Brownfield process, justify short-circuiting SEQRA review. The Brownfield Program and SEQRA serve related but distinct purposes. SEQRA is designed to assure that the main environmental concerns, and the measures taken to mitigate them, are described in a publicly filed document identified as an EIS, as to which the public has a statutorily-required period for review and comment. We understand the Authority's view that, as to this project, it has already done enough public outreach and considered enough public comments, but SEQRA requires it to take this one step more."

- Steven M. Silverberg

Posted On: October 19, 2012

Town Fails to Exhaust Administrative Remedies in Challenge to SDHR

The N.Y. Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit by the Town of Oyster claiming an administrative complaint by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) was unconstitutional reverse discrimination. In Matter of the Town of Oyster Bay v. Kirkland, the SDHR had asserted a claim that certain provisions of the Town of Oyster Bay zoning ordinance discriminated against minorities in violation of the State Human Rights Law. Oyster Bay, without awaiting completion of the SDHR investigation, brought an action raising a number of claims. Except for the reverse discrimination claim the other claims were ultimately dropped by the Town.

The Court began by analyzing the exhaustion of administrative remedies rule and the exceptions to that rule:

"The exhaustion rule, however, is not an inflexible one. It is subject to important qualifications. It need not be followed, for example, when an agency's action is challenged as either unconstitutional or wholly beyond its grant of power, or when resort to an administrative remedy would be futile or when its pursuit would cause irreparable injury" (Watergate II Apts. v Buffalo Sewer Auth., 46 NY2d 52, 57 [1978] [citations omitted]). Here, the Town has abandoned its argument that the SDHR's complaint was ultra vires, but pursues its claim that the SDHR is engaged in unconstitutional "reverse discrimination.'"

However, the Court noted that, " 'merely asserting a constitutional violation will not excuse a litigant from first pursuing administrative remedies that can provide the requested relief'." Therefore, the Court concluded that the matter should be addressed first at the administrative level, as an administrative law judge could find that the zoning is not discriminatory.

-Steven Silverberg