Oh Deer! Local Hunting Laws and New York State Preemption Doctrine
January 29, 2018
In 2014, the New York State Legislature enacted a significant amendment to the Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) reducing setbacks required to discharge a long bow in the lawful act of hunting from 500 feet to 150 feet from occupied buildings and public places. ECL11-0931(2). This created a ripple effect in many Long Island municipalities that previously codified the State’s regulation of 500-feet. For example, the Town of Smithtown still maintains a local law requiring a 500-foot setback, which now conflicts with the State’s 2014 150-foot setback requirement.
The question now becomes whether New York’s preemption doctrine prevents municipalities from maintaining local laws conflicting with State law. In this case, can the Town of Smithtown maintain its 500-foot setback for the discharge of a long bow as opposed to the State’s 150-foot setback?
Some would say that the State occupies the field of hunting, because it declared title to the wildlife in its sovereign capacity for the benefit of all the people (ECL 11-0105). Consequently, hunting the State’s wildlife is regulated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) ECL Title 7.
However, the State also provided municipalities broad latitude to regulate themselves through the Municipal Home Rule Law (MHR). MHR confers on local governments the authority to adopt laws for, among other things, the protection of health, safety and welfare, to the extent they are not inconsistent with either the State Constitution or any other State law. MHR 10(1)(ii).
In DJI Restaurant v City of New York , the Court of Appeals explained the two ways State law preempts local laws as follows: (1) where an express conflict exists between State and local law (conflict preemption) and (2) where the State has evidenced its intent to occupy the field (field preemption).
Field preemption exists when a local law regulating the same subject matter is deemed inconsistent with the State law. In this situation, the local law must yield, because it thwarts the State’s overriding policy for State-wide uniformity. See, Matter of Chwick v. Mulvey, (state law regarding firearm licenses preempted a Nassau County ordinance against “deceptively colored” handguns where comprehensive regulations by the State demonstrate the Legislature’s intent to occupy the field”).
Presently, New York has not expressly preempted the regulation of hunting; and there does not appear to be any case directly on point for conflict preemption. However, the State’s intent to “occupy the field” of hunting appears evidenced by comprehensive ECL statutes, the framework of NYSDEC regulations and strict licensing requirements. See, ECL Title 11.
Moreover, given the purpose and scope of the State’s legislative scheme, including the need for statewide uniformity, the State need not expressly state that it is preempting local municipalities in the area of hunting. See generally, Albany Area Blders v. Town of Guiderland, However, in the case of Smithtown, it appears the State may have to take a more explicit position or risk the balkanization of hunting regulations on Long Island and possibly other parts of the State. This seems particularly counterintuitive when dealing with the State’s wildlife.