When purchasing real estatein New York, it is essential to understand the legal rights and restrictions attached to the property. For instance, if you plan to buy a home and make renovations or additions—or even demolish the existing structure and start anew—you need to make sure that local zoning laws permit such activities. You also need to understand that local approval processes may take many months or years depending on what you propose to do.
Upstate Property Owners Thwarted in Long-Running Zoning Dispute
Consider a zoning dispute in upstate New York that has been going on for more than 15 years. In 2000, two companies purchased 29 acres of real estate in Newburgh, a town in Orange County. The owners planned to construct 136 apartments on the site. This required approval from the Town of Newburgh Planning Board.
At the time, Newburgh officials were in the process of developing a comprehensive plan, which would affect zoning throughout the town. In 2006, the town rezoned the owners' land in such a way that their plan to develop apartments could not be approved as presented. This led to litigation.
While the lawsuit was pending, the town did grant the owners “preliminary site plan approval...subject to numerous conditions.” This allowed the owners to conduct certain preparatory work on their property—demolishing an existing house on the site, removing water tanks, erecting signs, et cetera—but not begin construction of their proposed apartments. Ultimately, the town won the litigation upholding its rezoning of the property.
But that was not the end of the matter. The owners argued they still retained a “vested right under the common law” to develop their property under the old zoning regulations. The owners said they had relied on the “preliminary site plan approval” in preparing the site and were therefore entitled to proceed with their original plan.
The courts rejected this argument. The New York Court of Appeals, in a February 11 decision, said that while there are circumstances where a property owner may rely on a “legally issued permit” to make changes to their land, and those changes are “so substantial that the municipal action results in serious loss rendering the improvements essentially valueless,” this was not such a case. Indeed, the Court of Appeals noted that town officials had repeatedly warned the property owner of the ongoing re-zoning efforts, which would restrict their ability to carry out their original development plan. The owners therefore could not rely on the limited grant of permits to prepare the site as approval for their entire plan.