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Appellate Court Holds Adjoining Municipalities May Sue Under SEQRA To Protect Community Character

In a comprehensive review of the capacity and standing of one municipality to sue another over local zoning, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Matter of Village of Chestnut Ridge v. Town of Ramapo, held that villages have the capacity to sue a town over a local law enacting a zoning amendment. Yet the Court also found their standing is limited to SEQRA and General Municipal Law compliance rather than the local law’s consistency with a comprehensive plan.

The Town had adopted a zoning amendment by local law which permitted adult student housing. The law applied to four parcels of land near or adjacent to the boundary of four Villages located in the Town. The four villages and two individuals commenced a combined Article 78/declaratory judgment action challenging the local law, and subsequent actions which incorporated the local law. The lower court dismissed the action on a cross motion by the Town finding lack of capacity to sue and/or lack of standing on each of the causes of action. The Appellate Division modified.

First, the Court noted that Village Law specifically authorizes Villages to sue and be sued. The Town had argued that Town Law Section 264 provides that a village may not challenge a Town’s zoning in court. The Court distinguished a zoning amendment adopted pursuant to Town Law from a case such as this with a local law enacting a zoning regulation under Municipal Home Rule Law. The court found that Municipal Home Rule Law did not similarly restrict a challenge by a village.

More importantly the Court noted that SEQRA had been adopted and implemented after both the provisions of Town Law and Municipal Home Rule Law. The Court held that an abutting municipality as an interested agency (rather than an involved agency which automatically has standing) had the same right to challenge a SEQRA determination as an individual, although the test of standing is somewhat different.

In analyzing the standing of the Villages the Court found that while mere proximity was not enough by itself to create standing, the proposed development on the border of the Villages was substantial and could have a significant detrimental impact. In this case there was a claim that the Villages share much of their infrastructure with the Town. Noting that SEQRA specifically seeks to protect community character the Court held the “power to define community character is a unique prerogative of a municipality acting in its governmental capacity”. Therefore the Court held the Villages had standing under SEQRA to challenge the Town’s actions. In addition the Court found standing to enforce General Municipal Law provisions relating to procedural requirements for adoption of local laws. But the Court found the Villages had no interest in enforcing the procedural requirements related to the adoption of the zoning under Municipal Home Rule Law or with respect to compliance with the Town’s comprehensive plan finding “they are beyond the bounds of the mutuality of restriction and benefit that underlies the comprehensive plan requirement. The matter was remitted to the lower court for a determination on the merits of the causes of action that survived.