Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 5, 2020

Fed. Dist Court of NY Denies CWA, ESA and SEQRA Claims Arising from Town’s Tree Cutting

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

Plaintiffs brought this action alleging various violations of state and federal environmental laws and their constitutional rights against Defendants Crossgates Releaseco, LLC, Pyramid Management Group, LLC, Rapp Road Development, LLC, and the Defendants Town of Guilderland, Planning Board of Guilderland, and Zoning Board of Appeals of Guilderland. Specifically, the complaint alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), and Plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights, arising from the Corporate Defendants’ cutting of trees in a large parcel of land near Plaintiffs’ homes and businesses in the Town of Guilderland. Plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking an order enjoining any further tree cutting or site excavation on the sites at issue, enjoining the lead agency from further SEQRA review, and requiring the re-establishment of a lead agency.

With regard to the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and Plaintiffs’ Due Process right claims, Plaintiffs admitted that they did not have viable claims under the CWA and the ESA because they have failed to comply with procedural pre-requisites. Nevertheless, Plaintiffs contended that Defendants’ alleged violation of these statutes constituted “fundamental procedural irregularities” that were actionable violations of Plaintiffs’ due process rights which may be brought as a Section 1983 action. The court denied these claims, finding that Plaintiffs’ due process claim could not be based on alleged violations of the CWA and the ESA.

The court next analyzed the Section 1983 substantive due process claim, which was based on Defendants’ alleged failure to comply with SEQRA requirement. Plaintiffs sought an order enjoining construction activities on the sites at issue, preventing the current lead agency’s SEQRA review, and requiring the re-establishment of another lead agency to finish the pending SEQRA review. In doing so, the court found that Plaintiffs were asking the court to interfere with an ongoing SEQRA review process so that the court could order the removal of the current lead agency, despite the fact that it had yet to issue a final decision. Accordingly, Defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was granted.

Plaintiffs next contended that they had a fundamental right to the use and enjoyment of their properties and that the Municipal Defendants’ actions interfered with that right. Specifically, Plaintiffs claimed that, as a result of the cutting, they could now hear the noise of traffic and see headlights from Western Avenue. The court noted that these consequences were the result of the Corporate Defendants’ actions, rather than any action by the Municipal Defendants. As such, Plaintiffs could have resorted to a private nuisance claim against the Corporate Defendants in seeking damages for these nuisances. Even though the Municipal Defendants allowed the Corporate Defendants to clear cut portions of Plaintiffs’ property, while the property was undergoing a SEQRA review, the court found that this conduct did not shock the conscience or was “truly brutal and offensive to human dignity.”

Hart v Town of Guilderland, 2020 WL 40500644 (NDNY 8/5/2020)

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