First Department Affirms Dismissal of Constitutional Challenge to Zoning Resolution
November 23, 2020
Last year, the New York County Supreme Court heard an Article 78 challenge by Preserve Our Brooklyn Neighborhoods (“POBN”), a civic organization dedicated to maintaining the unique character and historical significance of the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn, New York. This lawsuit, which I discussed in a previous post, turned on whether a resolution passed by the New York City Council (the “City”) constituted unconstitutional spot zoning.
As a refresher, in the Supreme Court action, POBN sought to annul and vacate the City’s 2018 resolution to rezone part of the Fort Greene area to allow for, inter alia, commercial and mixed residential development. POBN brought causes of action alleging constitutional violations and violations of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and the City Environmental Quality Review (“CEQR”).
Although the SEQRA and CEQR claims were dismissed on procedural grounds, the Supreme Court would have also dismissed them on the merits. Such challenges can only succeed if the petitioner demonstrates that the administrative agency rendering the underlying determination acted arbitrarily. The Supreme Court held that the New York City Planning Commission appropriately followed the requirements of SEQRA and CEQR and did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner. The First Department agreed and affirmed the dismissal on those same grounds.
POBN’s other cause of action alleged unconstitutional spot zoning, which the New York State Court of Appeals has defined “as ‘the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area, for the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of other owners” (Rodgers v. Tarrytown, 302 N.Y. 115, 123, 96 N.E.2d 731, 734 ).” As previously discussed, constitutional challenges to zoning legislation are subject to a high bar and are successful only if the petitioner is able to prove its claim beyond a reasonable doubt.
In denying POBN’s petition, the Supreme Court pointed out that POBN was only concerned with how the development may negatively impact its own interests, while ignoring the fact that it would create new affordable apartments and community space in the area. POBN’s sole concern that the development would damage the character of the neighborhood was insufficient to overcome its heavy burden of proving unconstitutional spot zoning, and the First Department agreed.
Ultimately, the First Department held that the resolution was not “enacted solely for the benefit of the lot in question to the detriment of other owners.” Rather, “the rezoning [was] part of ‘a well-considered and comprehensive plan calculated to serve the general welfare of the community’ (Collard v Incorporated Vil. of Flower Hill, 52 NY2d 594, 600 ).” For these reasons, the First Department also affirmed the dismissal of POBN’s cause of action alleging unconstitutional spot zoning.