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Second Circuit Rejects Section 1983 Property Rights Claim

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a decision by the district court that found a property owner was not bound by a restriction contained in an old subdivision and that the Town had violated the property owners’ rights by refusing to issue a certificate of occupancy for a house on the property (O’Mara v Town of Wappinger). At the heart of the case is whether, under New York law, a notation on a subdivision map that was never recorded in the chain of title to the property binds subsequent purchasers of that property.

The O’Mara’s, as a result of a tax foreclosure, purchased vacant land for which they received a building permit for a house and temporary certificate of occupancy before the Town declared that the land was supposed to be retained as vacant open space and issued a stop work order. The lot in question was part of a 1963 subdivision which contained a notation that the lot was “open space”. Yet there was no other record in the county clerk’s office that would alert a purchaser of any restriction and the map was not recorded in land records in the manner of a deed so that it would appear in a search of the title.

The Circuit Court held that it could find no case law on the issue of whether such an open space restriction, noted solely on a subdivision map, is binding on subsequent purchasers. It therefore certified the question to the New York Court of Appeals. Having concluded there was no clear answer to that question, the Court also reversed the finding of the district court that the refusal by the Town to issue a certificate of occupancy was a violation of 42 U.S.C. section 1983. Instead the Court held that, as the meaning of the law was uncertain, the O’Mara’s had no “clear entitlement”. The Court held that even were the New York Court of Appeals to subsequently determine the 1963 open space restriction is not binding “the uncertainty that leads us to certify this issue means the O’Maras did not have a ‘clear entitlement’ to a certificate of occupancy and therefore no cognizable property interest that would support a violation of their right to substantive due process”.

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