Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 20, 2020

NY Appellate Court Holds Adjacent Property Owners Had No Standing to Challenge Town’s Negative Declaration of Nature Conservancy

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq

The Barberville Nature Preserve was an approximately 138–acre parcel of property owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy as a designated “forever wild” natural resource area located within the Town of Poestenkill, Rensselaer County. In 2015, the Town Board of respondent Town of Poestenkill entered into preliminary negotiations with the Nature Conservancy for the potential ownership of the preserve. The Town Board classified the land acquisition as a type I action pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act, since it involved the acquisition of over 100 contiguous acres of land, and designated itself as lead agency and prepared a full environmental assessment form (“EAF”). At the following Town Board meeting, the Town Board reviewed the completed EAF and issued a negative declaration, concluding that acquisition of the nature preserve would have “no adverse environmental impact.” The petitioners commenced this CPLR article 78 proceeding seeking to rescind the Town Board’s negative declaration for failure to comply with SEQRA. The Supreme Court of New York held that petitioners lacked standing, dismissed the petition, and granted respondents’ counterclaim for a declaratory judgment.

On appeal, petitioners first argued that the Town, in conducting its SEQRA review, failed to consider the impact of increased motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic and/or the environmental effect that a newly proposed parking lot and hiking trail would have on the nature preserve. Assuming, without deciding, that petitioners adequately established their ownership interest in the property directly adjacent to the nature preserve, the court found petitioners’ position as adjacent landowners did not automatically confer standing on them to challenge the Town Board’s negative declaration. Specifically, petitioners failed to allege any unique or distinct injury that they would suffer as a result of the Town’s proposed land acquisition that was not generally applicable to the public at large. Furthermore, the alleged injuries claimed by petitioners did not directly arise from the Town’s potential land acquisition, but instead involved conditions that had preexisted the subject acquisition for decades.

The record reflected that, in conducting its SEQRA review, the Town Board prepared a full EAF indicating that the subject land acquisition presented no zoning changes and no substantial changes in the use of the property. The EAF further established that the relevant environmental concerns were reviewed and considered. Specifically, the only anticipated impact on the land would be the construction of a parking area of less than one acre, creating an additional 6 to 10 parking spaces, which was found to not substantially increase noise or use of the nature preserve nor substantially impact the nature preserve’s ecological system. Additionally, Town Board took comments from concerned citizens, including petitioners, during various Town Board meetings in which the proposed land acquisition was discussed. As such, the court found that the Town complied with its obligations under SEQRA. Accordingly, the court held that the Supreme Court of New York properly granted respondents’ counterclaim declaring its negative declaration to be lawful and proper.

Hohman v. Town of Poestenkill, 2020 WL 20407 (NYAD 3 Dept. 1/2/2020)

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