Are Schools Exempt from Local Zoning Regulations?

May 24, 2018

The Appellate Division, Third Department, recently issued a decision rejecting a public school’s contention that it was not subject to a town’s zoning requirements.

Many land use practitioners and local government officials believe that schools are exempt from all local zoning regulations. Indeed, the generally accepted practice in towns and villages throughout New York is that public and private schools need not comply with the zoning rules applicable to other property owners.

Various court decisions over the years apparently have led to that view. For example, nearly 50 years ago, in Matter of Board of Education of City of Buffalo v. City of Buffalo, 32 A.D.2d 98 (4th Dep’t 1969), the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, declared that “school districts, in the performance of their purely governmental duties and activities, should not be subject to building code regulations or such other regulatory restrictions as zoning ordinances.”

The Appellate Division, Third Department, recently issued a well-reasoned decision, in Matter of Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District v. Town of Bethlehem, 156 A.D.3d 179 (3d Dep’t 2017), that clarified that zoning laws do apply to schools, except in very specific circumstances. The court reviewed and discussed a number of other decisions, including by the New York Court of Appeals, that it explained had been misinterpreted. The Third Department’s opinion in Bethlehem is one that doubtless will be studied, referred to, and cited for years to come.

The Bethlehem Case

The case arose when the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District asked the town of Bethlehem whether any local law prohibited it from replacing an existing traditional sign at one of its elementary schools with an electronic message board sign. The town responded that these kinds of electronic signs were expressly prohibited under its zoning laws.

The district then applied for a permit to install an electric sign that already had been donated to the school. The town denied the district’s application, but the district nevertheless installed the sign.

The town informed the district that it was in violation of the town’s zoning law and that it needed to remove the sign. In response, the district said that, as a public school, it was not subject to the town’s zoning requirements. The district also appealed the town’s sign permit denial by seeking a variance from the town’s zoning board of appeals (the ZBA). After a public hearing, the ZBA denied the district’s application for a variance, citing, among other things, traffic safety concerns.

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Anthony S. Guardino, a partner with the law firm of Farrell Fritz, P.C., practices in the areas of land use, zoning, and environmental law. Resident in the firm’s office in Hauppauge, Long Island, he can be reached at aguardino@farrellfritz.com.

Reprinted with permission from New York Law Journal May 23, Vol 259-No. 99

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