Real estate development can be a complicated process in New York due to local regulations governing zoning and environmental issues. Individual counties, towns, and villages may adopt different rules that can significantly delay or impede a property owner's plans. In some cases legal disputes arising from zoning and environmental problems can last years, if not decades.
Nassau County Village's 20-Year Religious Battle
A particularly newsworthy example of this is the long-running battle between the Catholic Church and the Village of Old Westbury in Nassau County. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, which oversees all churches on Long Island, purchased approximately 97 acres of property in Old Westbury back in 1994. The Diocese informed the village it intended to use most of the land to erect a cemetery.
Local zoning officials objected to the Diocese's proposal, arguing the cemetery constituted a “business use of the property...inconsistent with the Village's comprehensive plan.” This prompted extended litigation in the New York courts. In 2000, Nassau County Supreme Court held the proposed cemetery was a “religious use” of property and the Diocese was entitled to a “special permit” from the village. The Appellate Division, Second Department, modified the Supreme Court's decision in 2002, agreeing the cemetery was a religious use but the Diocese should not receive a special permit until village officials conducted an environmental impact review, as required by New York law.
While this appeal was pending, the village adopted a “Places of Worship Law” (POWL) that placed a number of restrictions on future development of religious property. Following the Appellate Division's 2002 decision, the Diocese again sought permission to build its cemetery, this time including the required environmental review and requests for variances from the new POWL. After several more years of wrangling, the village approved the Diocese's permit subject to a number of conditions that the church found unacceptable.
In late 2009, the Diocese filed a second lawsuit, this time in federal court. The Diocese argued the village's actions, including the adoption of the POWL, violated the church's constitutional rights. Many of the Diocese's claims were dismissed within the intervening six years, but on September 2, U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen issued anorder allowing some issues to proceed to trial.
Those claims include whether or not the POWL violates a federal statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits local governments from using zoning laws to discriminate against churches or other religious assemblies. While Judge Chen said Old Westbury's POWL was not “facially unconstitutional,” it may place a “substantial burden” on the Diocese's use of its land in violation of the RLUIPA. A jury may also consider whether or not the village's actions infringed on the First Amendment rights of the Diocese and constituted “direct retaliation” in violation of federal civil rights law.
Need Help With a Real Estate Matter?Meanwhile, the Diocese has yet to break down on a cemetery it planned to build 20 years ago. While this may be an exceptional case, it does illustrate how zoning and environmental disputes can pose major challenges for property owners. That is why you should always work with an experienced New York real estate attorney before undertaking any significant property development. The attorneys at Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, can assist you with your property transactions and legal problems.