Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 12, 2018

NY Appellate Court Dismisses Challenges to Ordinance Relating to Rental Properties

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Plaintiffs owned residential properties in the City of Cortland, Cortland County and primarily rented their properties to groups of college students. With certain exceptions, a local ordinance required owners to obtain a rental permit before renting or leasing any rental building or structure in the City of Cortland, and limited the occupancy of dwelling units to a “family,” as that term was defined in Cortland City Code chapter 300. In 2010, plaintiffs commenced this declaratory judgment action contended that the terms “family,” “functional equivalent of a traditional family” and “certificate of zoning compliance”  were unconstitutionally vague, that limiting the occupancy of dwelling units to a family was not reasonably related to a legitimate governmental purpose and that the disclosure requirements set forth in Cortland City Code § 102–9, with respect to the number of tenants residing in a given unit, violated their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The Supreme Court of New York dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims, and Plaintiffs appealed.

The court found that the term “family” was defined in the Cortland City Code as “one, two or three persons occupying a dwelling unit” or “four or more persons occupying a dwelling unit and living together as a traditional family or the functional equivalent of a traditional family” Additionally, it was “presumptive evidence that four or more persons living in a single dwelling unit who are not related by blood, marriage or legal adoption do not constitute the functional equivalent of a traditional family.” Furthermore, the ordinance provided detailed criteria to be utilized when assessing whether a group of four or more individuals who are living together and who have no blood or legal relationship are the functional equivalent of a traditional family. Accordingly, the court agreed with Supreme Court that the term “certificate of zoning compliance” was readily discernable from its plain language and from the case law referencing this document, and that a person of ordinary intellect would understand it to be a document certifying that a property complies with a zoning ordinance.

Lastly, plaintiffs argued that the manner in which the terms “family” and “functional equivalent of a traditional family” were defined did not reasonably relate to a legitimate governmental purpose. The record therefore reflected that the rental occupancy restriction was enacted to serve a legitimate governmental interest in diminishing public nuisances created from the overcrowding of dwelling units occupied by transient residents. Moreover, the ordinance did not favor certain types of families over others, or restrict the size of unrelated persons living as a functionally equivalent family without also restricting the size of a traditional family. As such, the court held plaintiffs failed to establish that the challenged provisions of the ordinance were unconstitutional.

Grodinsky v City of Cortland, 2018 WL 3383637 (NYAD 3 Dept. 7/12/2018)

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