Another HMY Major Win with SEQRA Challenge

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LOCAL MUNICIPALITIES HAVE STANDING TO CHALLENGE STATE AND COUNTY DESIGNATIONS OF REAL PROPERTY AS “AGRICULTURAL,” AND SUCH DESIGNATIONS MUST COMPLY WITH THE REQUIREMENTS OF SEQRA

Another HMY Major WinIn a series of Orders issued in two related cases of first impression, HMY Partner David N. Yaffe, Esq., retained as special counsel to the Village of Islandia, successfully established that the Village had “standing” to challenge the “agricultural” designations issued by the State and Suffolk County for several real properties located in the Village, and that the State and County failed to comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) in making those designations. As a result, the Albany County Supreme Court (Lynch, J.) annulled and vacated the agricultural resolutions and designations of the properties. See, Village of Islandia v. Ball, Albany County Index # 905550/2017; Village of Islandia v. Ball, Albany County Index No. 908006/2019.

The analysis of the cases was governed by the rarely litigated provisions of Agricultural and Markets Law (AML) § 303-b, pursuant to which Counties and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets are authorized to respectively select and designate real property for addition to Agricultural Districts in New York. As the Supreme Court noted, such designations are achieved in a “two-step process” in which a county legislature must first issue a Resolution recommending the addition of property to an Agricultural District, and then the State Commissioner of Agriculture may certify the subject property if the Commissioner finds that the inclusion is feasible and shall serve the public interest by assisting in maintaining a viable agricultural industry within the district. A designation of property as “agricultural” vests the property with a host of protections against local zoning restrictions and code enforcement (see, AML § 305-a(1)(a)), and also qualifies the property for “agricultural assessment values” that provide substantial reductions in annual real property tax obligations (see, AML § 304-a).

Utilizing AML § 303-b and SEQRA, the Village challenged the “agricultural” designations of three parcels of residential property in the Village. The property owner had recently purchased them and successfully asserted to the County and the State Commissioner that they were related to a horse farm also owned by the property owner which had itself received an “agricultural” designation.

In rejecting the State, County and property owner’s argument that the Village did not have “standing” to challenge the subject designations, Justice Lynch found, “the record evidences that [the Village] has alleged direct harm, distinct from the public at large. First, [the Village] has alleged its ability to enforce its zoning ordinance to preserve the residential character of the relevant residential neighborhood is directly impacted by inclusion in the agricultural district, for zoning enforcement is superseded by the Commissioner [of Agriculture] in accord with AML § 305-a(1)(a). Clearly, limitation on local zoning enforcement may impact the community or neighborhood character, as well as change in the land use intensity, including agricultural lands . . . . [Second,] [i]nclusion of the . . . lands in the agricultural district also impacts the land value for tax assessment purposes pursuant to AML § 304-a. . . . It is manifest [] that erosion of the [Village’s] real property tax base impacts community growth and/or neighborhood character, i.e. cognizable environmental impacts.” See, Village of Islandia v. Ball, Albany County Index # 905550/2017, Order dated January 30, 2020.

The Supreme Court went on to address the merits of the Village’s argument that the County and the State Commissioner had violated the requirements of SEQRA in making these particular designations. SEQRA mandates that, in issuing and conducting discretionary actions and approvals, local legislative bodies and agencies must consider and identify the relevant areas of environmental concern potentially affected by such action, take a hard look at them and make a reasoned elaboration of the basis for their determinations from an environmental perspective. Justice Lynch concluded that the County had failed to comply with SEQRA.

At the outset, the County argued that SEQRA did not apply to its resolutions recommending that the properties be placed in an Agricultural District, contending that an exemption from SEQRA review applies to “agricultural farm management practices.” See, 6 NYCRR § 617.5(c)(4). Justice Lynch found this argument to be “belied by the record . . . wholly unpersuasive and misplaced,” observing that “local legislative action to add land to the District does not constitute ‘agricultural farm management practices.’” He held that “inclusion of additional lands into the District must be evaluated to determine whether a significant adverse impact on the environment exists,” and resolutions of local legislative bodies concerning same are not exempt from this requirement.

Next, the Supreme Court found that the County Legislature failed to conduct any SEQRA review of its own and rather “delegated its duty to determine significance to the [County] planning staff, in gross violation of its SEQRA duties.” See, Village of Islandia v. Ball, Albany County Index # 905550/2017, Order dated August 21, 2020. Highlighting this failure, it noted “the absence of any discussion concerning the [Environmental Assessment Form (the EAF)] by any Member of the Legislature at the hearing or meeting.” Id.

Justice Lynch further found that the record was barren of any support for the County’s conclusion that there would be no impacts or only small impacts to community character as a result of the “agricultural” designation, and that it was “particularly troubling” that the EAF was completed without consideration of the claims and information presented by the Village Mayor. Justice Lynch rejected the statement in the County’s Resolution that “the proposed action will not exceed any of the criteria in [the SEQRA regulations],” finding that “[t]he record is silent to explain the basis for that determination,” and he also held that such silence “evinces the [County’s] failure to understand how to determine the environmental significance of the action.”

In addition, Justice Lynch rejected as “wholly conclusory” and devoid of “the reasoned elaboration requirement of SEQRA,” the statements in the County Resolution that “the proposal does not appear to threaten” and “the parcels do not appear to suffer” from impacts to the environment (emphasis supplied by the Court). As Justice Lynch concluded, “the Legislature gave lip service to its SEQRA obligation, and utterly failed to meet its procedural and substantive mandate to take a hard look at the community character impact, and to articulate the basis for its determination.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court annulled the County’s SEQRA review and declared “null and void” the corresponding legislative approval to include the parcels in the Agricultural District. It also “vacated” the State Commissioner’s certification of the properties for inclusion in the Agricultural District. See, Village of Islandia v. Ball, Albany County Index # 905550/2017, Order dated August 21, 2020; see, Village of Islandia v. Ball, Albany County Index # 905550/2017, Order dated August 21, 2020.

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