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Standing To Challenge SEQRA Determination Is Not Defeated Because Others Are Also Impacted

The New York Court of Appeals reversed a lower court determination that a petitioner did not have standing to challenge an action because others were also impacted by train noises that formed a basis for his objections. In Matter of Sierra Club v. Village of Painted Post, the Court noted that while, in order to have standing to challenge a SEQRA determination a party must demonstrate they suffer a harm different from the public at large the “number of people who are affected by the challenged action is not dispositive of standing”.

The case involves an agreement by the Village to sell water to a company in Pennsylvania and a lease by the Village of a site to another company in order to operate a loading station for the water to be sold.  The agreement to sell the water was treated as a Type II action and the lease for the transfer station was treated as a Type I action and a negative declaration was issued. Several not-for-profit entities and individuals brought an Article 78 proceeding challenging the two actions on various grounds and further sought an injunction against the sale and transfer of the water.

The lower court found that all but one of the individuals lacked standing, as they failed to demonstrate that they were impacted by the project in any way that did not also impact the general public. Likewise the not-for-profit organizations failed to demonstrate that they had any individual members who suffered any harm different from the public at large. However, the lower court did find that one individual, Marvin, who lived across from the loading station and complained of noise from the trains passing through the station, did have standing. The court then overturned the actions of the Village Board.

On appeal, the Appellate Division determined that Marvin did not have standing and reversed without reaching the merits of the SEQRA claims. The Appellate Division noted that Marvin was not complaining about the operational noises of the loading facility but rather the noise of the trains passing through the loading facility. Therefore the Appellate Division concluded: “[i]nasmuch as we are dealing with the noise of a train that moves throughout the entire Village, as opposed to the stationary noise of the transloading facility, we conclude that Marvin will not suffer noise impacts ‘different in kind or degree from the public at large’ (115 AD3d at 1312-1313).”

The Court of Appeals reversed on the issue of Marvin’s standing and remitted the matter to the Appellate Division to address the merits. Noting this was an “opportunity to elucidate and further address the ‘special injury’ requirement of standing,” the Court held:

“The harm that is alleged must be specific to the individuals who allege it, and must be “different in kind or degree from the public at large”(Society of Plastics at 778), but it need not be unique. Here, petitioner Marvin is not alleging an indirect, collateral effect from the increased train noise that will be experienced by the public at large, but rather a particularized harm that may also be inflicted upon others in the community who live near the tracks.”

It seems we have a new, or at least expanded, criteria for determining standing in land use cases.

-Steven Silverberg