Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 18, 2014

New York Appellate Court Holds That Written Findings Are Not Required For Judicial Review of Pure Legal Interpretations

Generally, an administrative or quasi-judicial body, such as a zoning board of appeals, must adopt written findings justifying its determination so as to allow for intelligent judicial review. Courts have frequently invalidated determinations for failure to adopt written findings, and have remanded matters back to the administrative body so that findings may be made at the administrative level in the first instance. In Matter of Livingston Parkway Ass’n, Inc. v. Town of Amherst Zoning Bd. of Appeals, the Fourth Department held that in matters involving “pure legal interpretation[s] of statutory terms,” written findings are not necessary, and courts may review the statutory language in the first instance.

In Toys “R” Us v. Silva, 89 N.Y.2d 411 (1996), the Court of Appeals differentiated between administrative determinations that are afforded deference and those that are not. Deference is not required for matters involving the pure legal interpretation of statutory terms. In effect, the court conducts a de novo review. The standard of review is not whether the board acted arbitrarily and capriciously, requiring a review of the written findings and record; rather, the reviewing court must determine the meaning of the statute. The Fourth Department previously applied this doctrine in Emmerling v. Town of Richmond Zoning Bd. Of Appeals, 67 A.D.3d 1467 (4th Dep’t 2009) and held that a zoning board’s interpretation should be affirmed unless it is contrary to the “clear wording” of the zoning code.

Here, the ZBA determined that a site-specific rezoning condition limiting the height of proposed buildings—imposed in 1969 in connection with a development proposal that was never advanced—was no longer applicable due to a wholesale revision to the Town zoning code and map in 1976. In 1976, the Town Board rezoned the property and eliminated the property’s previous zoning classification. While the revised 1976 code preserved certain laws, rules, and regulations, it did not preserve conditions. Petitioners argued that the condition at issue was a rule or regulation that was preserved through the 1976 rezoning. The ZBA disagreed, but never issued formal written findings.

The Court held that in matters involving solely pure legal interpretations of statutory terms, there are no facts to be found. The Court also noted that petitioners admitted, presumably hoping to avoid deference being afforded to the ZBA’s determination, that the question was one of pure legal interpretation. The Court interpreted the zoning code de novo and held that rules and regulations are fixed general principles applied uniformly, whereas conditions are limited to specific factual situations—here, a development plan that was never advanced. Thus, the 1976 zoning code did not preserve the rezoning condition at issue and the height restriction is null and void. The ZBA’s interpretation was affirmed.

Livingston Parkway Ass’n, Inc. v. Town of Amherst Zoning Bd. of Appeals, (NYAD 4 Dept. 2/7/2014)

The opinion can be accessed here

Special thanks to Charles W. Malcomb, Esq. of Hodgson Russ, LLP in the Buffalo, NY office for this post.

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