[JK: This post has been edited to include the courts decision]
In a decision dated November 9, 2020, Judge Ann C. Crowell has dismissed the lawsuit brought by the neighbors of Saratoga Hospital (the petitioners) against the city (the respondent) in their effort to block the Hospital’s expansion.
The neighbors challenged the city in court on a number of grounds:
The Decisions Were Arbitrary and Capricious
The petitioners argued changing the zoning for the parcel from UR-1 (Urban Residential) to OMB2 (Office Medical Business) was arbitrary and capricious.
The judge concedes that “Whether an OMB2 zoning designation is applicable to the future land use category of Institutional in the Comprehensive Plan is debatable.”
She then cites this precedent decided by the Appellate Division, Third Department in July of this year. In New York, the Appellate Division is the court that would hear an appeal from a matter decided by a lower Supreme Court justice and the Third Department is the department covering Saratoga County and 27 other upstate counties::
A town’s zoning determination is entitled to a strong presumption of validity; therefore, one who challenges such a determination bears a heavy burden of demonstrating, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the determination was arbitrary and unreasonable or otherwise unlawful.Matter of Troy Sand & Gravel v Town of Sand Lake
And this precedent:
Thus, when a [petitioner] fails to establish a clear conflict with the comprehensive plan, the zoning classification must be upheld.Matter of Youngsworth v Town of Ramapo
All that is required is that the court be able to satisfy itself, based upon a review of all available evidence, that such plan [the comprehensive plan] in fact exists and that the municipality is acting in the public interest in furtherance thereof.”Matter Skenesborough Stone v Village of White Hall
I am told that the standard “beyond a reasonable doubt” is common in criminal cases but highly unusual in civil cases. Unfortunately, for the plaintiffs, they were unable to establish an argument that met this demanding a standard.
So while the judge acknowledged that there was enough merit to some of their arguments to be considered “debatable,” their claim apparently crashed against the rock of having to be proven true “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Designation of the Parcel Was Spot Zoning
The plaintiffs alleged in their suit that the designation of the parcel in the zoning map was “spot zoning.” In her decision, Justice Crowell noted:
Spot zoning is 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 said property to the detriment of other owners.Matter of Rotterdam Ventures, Inc. vs Town Board of Rotterdam
The justice noted that:
In evaluating a claim of spot zoning, the courts consider whether the rezoning is consistent with the comprehensive plan, whether it is compatible with surrounding uses, the likelihood of harm to surrounding properties, and the recommendations of professional staff.Judge Crowell
Essentially the court’s decision in evaluating the claim came down to this:
Fundamentally, and relevant here, if a zoning amendment is consistent with the municipality’s comprehensive plan, it is not spot zoning.Dodson v Town Board of Rotterdam
As the designation of the area in question was designated OMB2 in the comp plan their argument was dismissed.
The Hard Look Standard
The petitioners alleged that the city failed to consider the adverse impact allowing the use of the parcel for a large medical building would have on the area. This is what is meant by taking a “hard look.”
The State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) requires that a set of questions be answered as to the effect on land use decisions.
The justice wrote:
Judicial review of a lead agency’s SEQRA determination is limited to determining whether the agency identified the relevant areas of environmental concern, took a “hard look” at them, and made a “reasoned elaboration of the basis for its determination.”Justice Crowell
The court’s inquiry is whether there is a rational basis for the decision or whether it is arbitrary and capricious.Justice Crowell
Judge Crowell noted that the city had the benefit of and considered the PUD application submitted by Saratoga Hospital for the development of an office building on the parcel. The PUD application provided extensive studies of traffic, water, archeological impact, etc. At the time, following its review of the PUD the planning board did a SEQRA review and determined there would be no adverse impact of the proposed PUD.
The long and the short of it is that Justice Crowell found that the city’s SEQRA review and Full Environmental Assessment Form were sufficient to determine that the city had met the requirements for a “hard look.”
The petitioners contended that the city “impermissively segmented” the SEQRA review.
Justice Crowell wrote:
Segmentation is the division of the environmental review of an action in such way that the various segments are addressed as though they were independent and unrelated activities, needing individual determination of existence.Justice Crowell
This addresses the problem where in order to hide issues of impact that a large project might entail, a developer tries to mask the issues by breaking up the parcels of a project into separate applications.
The judge identified that the 2015 PUD application made clear the overall plan the hospital had.
…respondent (the city) has adequately and rationally determined that a later review will be no less protective of the environment than a speculative review with no clearly defined project in existence.Justice Crowell
The justice accepted the city’s representation that when the hospital submits its plans for their project the city will be able to address any potential environmental issues it may have.
The Corruption Argument
The plaintiffs alleged that the decision was “unlawfully tainted” by campaign donations made to elected officials by the hospital and its supporters.
While the receipt of campaign contributions casts a cloud over many aspects of government decision making at all levels of the government, the receipt of campaign contributions does not create an appearance of impropriety necessitating the annulment of respondent’s determination.Justice Crowell
Interestingly the justice wrote:
Petitioner has affirmatively stated that their claim is not based upon the General Municipal Law or the City Ethics Code.Justice Crowell
It appears that they admitted that this request to have the city’s decision vacated was not based on any actual law.
Violation of the Open Meetings Law
The petitioners asked that the decision be vacated because two of the members of the City Council discussed the amendments to the zoning map privately in early December of 2019. They claimed that this was a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
The Open Meetings Law requires that a quorum of a public body cannot gather without proper prior notice to the public, public access to the gathering, and a record of what transpired at the gathering.
As two Council members do not constitute a quorum, this would not constitute a violation.
It Aint’t Necessarily Over
While the court dismissed their suit, the plaintiffs have a right to appeal so this case may not be over.