Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 19, 2013

NY Appellate Court Upholds Reversal of ZBA’s Interpretation and Holds Local Social Services Programs Constitute “Vital Human Services” Under the Applicable Zoning Ordinance

Petitioner, a non-profit organization in Saratoga County that provides health related programs and services to low-income residents (e.g., WIC nutrition program, Head Start, disability services for children, emergency needs for food, and a weatherization program), sought an interpretation of the Village of Ballston Spa’s zoning ordinance as to whether the services they intended to provide at the property were permissible. The code enforcement officer determined the use was not permitted and the petitioner appealed to the zoning board of appeals who agreed with the code enforcement officer and the petitioner appealed. The trial court determined that the petitioner’s proposed use of the property fell into the exception in the zoning ordinance which allows for “vital human services.” The Village appealed.

The appellate court noted that the property is located is the Central Business District where the applicable zoning language provides, “a. Any change of use on the ground floor of a structure located within the Central Business District Zone shall be used only for retail space with the following exceptions: 1. Vital human services….” The italicized phrase is defined in the ordinance as “any health related services such as doctors, dentists, physical therapists, hair and skin care and other necessary human services.” The Court explained that while deference is typically afforded to the zoning board’s interpretation, since the ordinances are in derogation of common law, any ambiguity is resolved in favor of the property owner. Since the Court determined that the phrase “vital human services” is ambiguous, the court said it is to be construed in the petitioner’s favor. Further, the court noted that neither “health related services” nor “other necessary human services” is defined in the ordinance. The Court looked to concerns raised at the hearing which focused, incorrectly, on whether the property would be tax exempt, and also commented “respondent may not insert conditions or criteria into a zoning ordinance governing allowable uses in a zoned district that are not contained in the statutory language adopted.” Ultimately, the Court concluded that the proposed services offered are indeed “vital human services.”

Saratoga Springs Economic Opportunity Council, Inc. v Village of Ballston Spa Zoning Board of Appeals, 2013 WL 6283833 (NYAD 3 Dept. 12/5/2013).

The opinion can be accessed at: http://decisions.courts.state.ny.us/ad3/Decisions/2013/516536.pdf


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