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Public Trust Doctrine Not Violated By Restaurant In City Park

The New York Court of Appeals held that a license to operate a restaurant in New York’s Union Square Park does not constitute an improper alienation of parkland in violation of the public trust doctrine. In Union Sq. Park Community Coalition, Inc.v. New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Court noted that the challenge to the operation of a private restaurant in the park was based upon two claims: (1) the restaurant is not a park use and (2) that the “license” was actually a lease that alienated parkland without proper legislative approval.

In addressing the first issue, the Court noted that decades ago the Court had upheld the use of a restaurant in New York’s Central Park (795 Fifth Ave. Corp. v City of New York (15 NY2d 221 [1965]). In part that holding was based on the fact “that the ‘Park Commissioner is vested by law with broad powers for the maintenance and improvement of the city’s parks’ and that judicial interference would be ‘justified only when a total lack of power is shown’ (15 NY2d at 225 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).”

In further applying the rational established in 795 Fifth Avenue the Court held the:

“claims are substantially similar to the ones we found insufficient in 795 Fifth Ave. Plaintiffs have a different view of the best use of Union Square Park and its pavilion in particular, but this difference of opinion, without more, does not demonstrate the illegality of the Department’s plan. Put differently, plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the ‘type and location’ of the restaurant are unlawful. While we leave open the possibility that a particular restaurant might not serve a park purpose in a future case, we conclude that the restaurant here does not run afoul of the public trust doctrine for lack of a park purpose.”

The Court likewise rejected the claim that the license was, in reality, a lease that improperly alienated parkland.

“A document is a lease ‘if it grants not merely a revocable right to be exercised over the grantor’s land without possessing any interest therein but the exclusive right to use and occupy that land’….A license, on the other hand, is a revocable privilege given ‘to one, without interest in the lands of another, to do one or more acts of a temporary nature upon such lands’…

Here, the language of the agreement confirms that it is what it purports to be – a revocable license. The Department retained significant control over the daily operations of the restaurant, including the months and hours of operation, staffing plan, work schedules and menu prices. Moreover, CDM’s use of the premises is only seasonal, and is not exclusive even in the summer, as outdoor seating is required to be available to the general public (with the exception of an area reserved for the service of alcoholic beverages) and CDM is obligated to open the pavilion to the public for community events on a weekly basis. The agreement also contains numerous environmental and community-based provisions. Aside from complying with extensive environmental standards, CDM is required, for example, to use Greenmarket vendors, offer culinary internships and host charitable events. More importantly, the agreement broadly allows the Department to terminate the license at will so long as the termination is not arbitrary and capricious. Consequently, despite the 15-year term and payment structure, we agree with the Department that it entered into a valid license arrangement with CDM.”

-Steven Silverberg