Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 4, 2013

NY Appellate Court Upholds ZBA Determination that Mulching Business Was Not a Permitted Use in Schools and Cemeteries Zone

Oakwood Property Management, LLC (“Oakwood”) operates a landscaping business in the Town of Brunswick. In 2002, Oakwood began to expand its business after it obtained site plan approval by purchasing three neighboring parcels of land zoned for industrial, agricultural, and school and cemetery uses respectively. However, as the business spread, neighbors began to complain of the noise and in 2007 the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer sent a letter to Oakwood expressing concern that its business had expanded beyond the scope of the original site plan. After receiving no response, the officer informed Oakwood that it was in violation of the approved site plan and that it needed to submit an amended application. After the matter was adjourned by the Planning Board, the Code Enforcement Officer issued Oakwood a notice of violation stating that it was operating on the agricultural and school zoned parcels without the appropriate approvals, and that its initial operations on the industrial parcel exceeded the bounds of the 2002 site plan approval.

While Oakwood’s appeal was before the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) it was issued a second notice alleging various violations of the Town’s zoning ordinance. Oakwood appealed this order as well, but in the end the ZBA sustained the notices of violation and dismissed the appeals. Consequently, Oakwood sought declaratory judgment seeking, inter alia, “to annul the ZBA’s determination and a declaration that the ‘Schools and Cemeteries’ designation as depicted on the Town’s zoning map was unconstitutionally vague.” The court granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment and this appeal ensued.

Oakwood’s first argument was that the municipality was estopped from prohibiting it from conducting its grinding and mulching business on the parcels at issue because the Town was aware of and even encouraged such expansion. The Appellate Division, Third Department disagreed, however, noting that “estoppel cannot be invoked against a municipality to either (1) prevent it from discharging its statutory duties, (2) ratify administrative errors, or (3) preclude it from enforcing its zoning laws.” It could have been invoked had the Town engaged in conduct that was fraudulent or deceitful to which Oakwood reasonably relied on, but the court found no evidence of such conduct and therefore affirmed the lower court’s decision to reject the estoppel claim.

Next, Oakwood argued that the Town’s interpretation of the “Schools and Cemeteries” designation was irrational or unconstitutionally vague because the zoning ordinance did not define what that designation meant. The court responding held that a statute is not vague just because it is not defined; “rather, a statute [or ordinance] will pass constitutional muster so long as it provides persons of ordinary intellect reasonable notice of the proscribed conduct.” The court ruled that a reasonable person would interpret this zoning designation to encompass, self-evidently, schools and cemeteries, and that this simple and obvious understanding would not lead to arbitrary enforcement.

Additionally, the court concluded that Oakwood’s expansion of the business onto the agriculture-zoned parcel was not permitted. Under the Town’s regulations, permitted uses within an agricultural district include “[f]arms” and “[f]orestry and [n]ursery operations.” The court determined that Oakwood’s mulching operation was not encompassed by those terms and therefore it was not a permitted use. Thus, the BA’s determination was rational and was upheld.

Oakwood Property Management, LLC v. Town of Brunswick, 103 A.D.3d 1067, 2013 WL 708806 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept. 2/28/2013)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://decisions.courts.state.ny.us/ad3/Decisions/2013/514922.pdf


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