Matter of Long Is. Pine Barrens Socy. Inc. v Suffolk County Legislature
Decided on March 30, 2011
Supreme Court, Suffolk County
In the Matter of the application of Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Inc., RICHARD AMPER, as Executive Director, THOMAS CASEY and ROBERT McGRATH, Residents, Taxpayers and Property Owners, Petitioners,
Suffolk County Legislature, SUFFOLK COUNTY FARMLAND COMMITTEE and LONG ISLAND FARM BUREAU, INC., Respondents.
GORDON & JUENGST, PC
Attys. For Petitioners
1785 Express Dr. North
Hauppauge, NY 11788
TWOMEY, LATHAM, SHEA, ET ALS
Attys. For Resp. LI Farm Bureau
PO Box 9398
Riverhead, NY 11901
Suffolk County Atty.
By: LEONARD G. KAPSALIS, ESQ.
Assist. Cty. Atty.
Atty. For County Respondents
PO Box 6100
Hauppauge, NY 11788
Thomas F. Whelan, J.
ORDERED that, pursuant to CPLR 103(c), this proceeding, which was styled as an Article 78 proceeding, is hereby converted into an action for declaratory and injunctive relief and the petition (#001) served and filed herein by the "petitioners" is declared a complaint; and it is further
ORDERED that the caption of this action is hereby amended to reflect the conversion of this proceeding into a plenary action for declaratory and injunctive relief by the deletion of the words "In the matter of the application of" and changes in the designation of the parties from petitioners and respondents to plaintiffs and defendants; and it is further
ORDERED that the motion (#002) by the corporate defendant, Long Island Farm Bureau, Inc., for an order dismissing the plaintiffs' complaint is considered under CPLR 3211(a)(7) and is granted; and it is further
ORDERED that the motion (#003) by the defendants, Suffolk County Legislature and Suffolk County Farmland Committee, for an order dismissing the plaintiffs' complaint is considered under CPLR 3211(a) and is denied; and it is further
ORDERED that the petition (#001) is hereby deemed decided by the conversion of same into a complaint pursuant to the terms of this order; and it is further
ORDERED that counsel for the plaintiffs and for the defendants, Suffolk County Legislature and Suffolk County Farmland Committee, shall appear for a preliminary conference scheduled for May 24, 2011, at 9:30 a.m. in Part 33, at the courthouse located at 1 Court Street - Annex, Riverhead, New York.
The petitioners (hereinafter plaintiffs) commenced this proceeding for a judgment declaring the invalidity of a local law adopted by resolution of the Suffolk County Legislature on September 16, 2010. This legislative enactment amended an existing local law codified as Chapter 8 of the Suffolk County Code entitled "Development Rights to Agricultural Land". Pursuant to the challenged resolution and its prior formulation, a process was provided by which the County of Suffolk could purchase development rights from landowners whose premises were dedicated to agriculture. In exchange therefor, the landowners agreed to limit the development of their [*2]agricultural lands. These purchases are funded in part by a quarter cent increase in the sales tax imposed by Suffolk County.
The resolution at issue provides that it is applicable to all agricultural lands in which the County acquired interests or rights under the Purchase of Development Rights Program and to lands so acquired in the future (see Resolution 1835-2010, § 8-3). The resolution further provides criteria to be employed in considering which lands should be encumbered by the purchase of development rights. All development rights acquired by the County are inalienable except under the limited circumstances set forth in § 8-6. It is therein provided that permits and special use permits may be available to those owning or occupying agricultural lands within the Program by which said owners and/or occupants may expand current agricultural uses by the erection or construction of new or additional structures (see Resolution 1845-10, §§ 8-8; 8-9; 8-10). Lot coverage limitation and other restrictions are governed by § 8-10(A) and (B), although relief therefrom is available if a hardship waiver is granted under § 8-10(C) of the subject resolution. In no event, however, may the lot coverage of any parcel within the Program exceed 25% of the lot area.
By their pleading, the plaintiffs challenge the subject resolution as unconstitutional under both the State and Federal Constitutions. They further challenge the subject resolution as inconsistent and/or violative of the General Municipal Law and several local laws aimed at protecting and conserving farm land. The plaintiffs also claim that the Resolution violates the Public Trust Doctrine. The plaintiffs demand a judgment declaring and setting aside the subject Resolution and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief with respect to any and all action purportedly undertaken thereunder.
Legislative Acts, such as zoning amendments, that are challenged as to its substance or constitutionality, are subject to review in an action for declaratory relief and not in an Article 78 proceeding (see P & N Tiffany Prop., Inc. v Village of Tuckahoe, 33 AD3d 61, 817 NYS2d 345 [2d Dept 2006]). Where the wisdom or merit of the challenged zoning enactment is questioned, the determination of its enactors is entitled to great deference as it is afforded a presumption of validity and constitutionality (see Robert E. Kurzius, Inc. v Incorporated Vil. Of Upper Brookville, 51 NY2d 338, 434 NYS2d 180 ; Town of Huntington v Park Shore Country Day Camp of Dix Hills, Inc., 47 NY2d 61, 416 NYS2d 774 ).
In contrast, challenges to legislative enactments that are procedural in nature, rather than substantive, are properly reviewable in Article 78 proceedings (see Matter of Save the Pine Bush v City of Albany, 70 NY2d 193, 203, 518 NYS2d 943; P & N Tiffany Prop., Inc. v Village of Tuckahoe, 33 AD3d 61, supra). The standard applicable to judicial review is limited to whether the challenged resolution was made in violation of lawful procedure, affected by an error of law, arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, or irrational (see CPLR 7803; Matter of Young v Board of Trustees of Vil. of Blasdell, 89 NY2d 846, 848, 652 NYS2d 729 ; Matter of Save the Pine Bush v City of Albany, 70 NY2d 193, 203, supra; East Moriches Prop. Owners' Assn., Inc. v Planning Bd. of Town of Brookhaven, 6 AD3d 895, 887 NYS2d 638 [2d Dept 2009]). [*3]
A review of the pleading served by the plaintiffs reveals that the local law under siege is a legislative act that is akin to a zoning amendment. The challenges thereto are aimed not at the procedures employed in its adoption but instead, to the wisdom and/or merit of such resolution and its constitutionality. Judicial review of said resolution must thus be made within the context of a plenary action for declaratory relief. Since the instant proceeding was incorrectly styled as an Article 78 proceeding, and jurisdiction has been obtained over all indispensable parties, this court hereby converts this proceeding into a plenary action for declaratory and injunctive relief pursuant to CPLR 103(c) (see Perrin v Bayville Vil. Bd., 70 AD3d 835, 894 NYS2d 131 [2d Dept 2010]; cf. Stoffer v Department of Public Safety Tn. of Huntington, 77 AD3d 305, 907 NYS2d 38 [2d Dept 2010]). The caption is hereby amended to reflect this conversion and shall thus read as follows:
Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Inc., Richard Amper,
as Executive Director, Thomas Casey and Robert McGrath,
residents, taxpayers and property owners,
Suffolk County Legislature, Suffolk County Farmland
Committee and Long Island Farm Bureau, Inc.,
In lieu of answering, the defendants, Long Island Farm Bureau, Inc., and the County defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff's now converted complaint. For the reasons set forth below, the corporate defendant's motion (#002) is granted while the motion (#003) by the County defendants is denied.
The motion by defendant, Long Island Farm Bureau, Inc. (hereinafter Farm Bureau), is predicated upon the plaintiffs' purported failure to state any cognizable claims against it. The Farm Bureau argues that because the plaintiffs demand no relief with respect to it, dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint, pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), is warranted. The Farm Bureau asserts that it is merely a voluntary agricultural membership and advocacy organization whose members may or may not have participated in the transfer of the Development Rights Program at issue herein. It asserts that since none of the causes of action are directed at it and no relief affecting it is demanded, the Farm Bureau has chosen not to litigate the issue and to defer, instead, to the County's defense of the subject legislative enactment.
In opposing the Farm Bureau's motion, the plaintiffs, in conclusory form, assert that the members of the Farm Bureau may be affected by the judgment rendered herein since many of them are participants or may become participants in the Transfer Development Rights Program. For the reasons stated, the court rejects this position advanced by the plaintiffs. [*4]
It is well settled law that in the absence of a justiciable controversy between the parties to a declaratory judgment action, the plaintiff is not entitled to a judicial declaration (see Moore v Liberty Power, LLC, 72 AD3d 660, 897 NYS2d 723 [2d Dept 2010]). It is equally well settled that on a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a cause of action, the court must accept as true the facts alleged in the complaint and must accord them the benefit of all possible inferences and discern therefrom whether any cause of action known to our law is stated (see East Suffolk Dev. Corp. v Town Board of the Town of Riverhead, 59 AD3d 661, 874 NYS2d 216 [2d Dept 2009]).
Here, the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that a justiciable controversy exists between them and the defendant, Farm Bureau. The plaintiffs further failed to demonstrate that some actual and/or concrete right or interest belonging to the Farm Bureau may be adversely affected by any judgment rendered herein. Defendant Farm Bureau is no more interested in the outcome of the legislation than any other Suffolk County resident owning or occupying agricultural lands within the contemplation of Chapter 8 of the Suffolk County Code. Under these circumstances, the court grants the motion (#002) by the defendant, Farm Bureau, to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7).
The motion (#003) by the County defendants for dismissal of the plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) is denied. The County defendants' conclusory claim that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the resolution at issue is without merit. The subject resolution is akin to a zoning amendment as it provides for the development of agricultural lands within the transfer of Development Rights Program Chapter 8 created under certain circumstances by the granting of several types of permits. Not cited in either their moving papers or their memorandum of law submitted in support of their motion is the recent case authority emanating from the Court of Appeals in Save the Pine Bush, Inc. v Common Council of the City of Albany, (13 NY2d 297, 890 NYS2d 405 ), in which the standing of organizations, such as the plaintiff, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Inc , was expanded. In Save the Pine Bush, Inc. v Common Council of the City of Albany, the Court of Appeals extended standing to the organizational plaintiff because its members were alleged to have sustained an injury to their "aesthetic and environmental well being" (see Save the Pine Bush, Inc. v Common Council of the City of Albany, Id. at 305). A review of the complaint served in this action reveals that the plaintiffs have met this standard.
Equally unavailing are the County defendants' claims that none of the plaintiffs have standing to challenge the subject resolution under GML § 51 (see Korn v Gullotta, 72 NY2d 363, 534 NYS2d 108 ). The plaintiffs have alleged sufficient allegations of injury or waste to public funds so as to imperil the public interests or to work a public injury or produce some public mischief (see Id at 372; cf. Godfrey v Spano, 57 AD3d 941, 871 NYS2d 296 [2d Dept 2008]).
The remaining portions of the County defendants' motion to dismiss are devoted to contesting the merits of the plaintiffs' claims for invalidation of the local law enacted by the subject resolution. The County defendants failed, however, to establish that the plaintiffs' claims are not cognizable or that they have otherwise failed to state claims upon which relief can be granted. Whether the plaintiffs' claims will survive a motion for summary judgment interposed upon the completion of [*5]discovery is not part of the calculus in determining whether the complaint should be dismissed on this pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) (see Khoury v Khoury, 78 AD3d 903, 912 NYS2d 235 [2d Dept 2010]; Sokol v Leader, 74 AD3d 1180, 904 NYS2d 153 [2d Dept 2010]). Accordingly, the motion by the County defendants to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint is denied.
The County defendants shall have 35 days from the date of this order to serve its answer to the plaintiffs' complaint. A preliminary conference shall be held before this court on May 31, 2011 in the courtroom of the undersigned as indicated above.
THOMAS F. WHELAN, J.S.C.