February 23, 2016

In Winterton Properties, LLC v. Town of Mamakating Zoning Board of Appeals, 132 A.D.3d 1141 (3rd Dept. 2015), the Appellate Division, Third Department reversed the Supreme Court decision and found that a Mikvah, or bath-like structure used in Jewish ceremonies was permitted under the local zoning ordinance in the Town of Mamakating.

The Town’s Building Inspector had issued an interpretation that the Mikvah was considered a “neighborhood place of worship” which was a permitted use in the zoning district in which the property was located.  Two individuals appealed that determination and the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) determined that the Mikvah did not qualify as a “neighborhood place of worship” at least in part because it lacked a community prayer element.  The Town’s Zoning Code did not define “neighborhood place of worship” but stated that undefined terms would have their “ordinary dictionary meanings.”

The Appellate Division looked at Black’s Law Dictionary and held that “the dictionary meaning of neighborhood place of worship—and consequently the definition of that term under the Town’s zoning law—is a building or location set aside in a certain area for any form of religious devotion, ritual or service showing reverence, especially for a divine being or supernatural power.”  The Court agreed with the Petitioner that the ZBA imposed an additional community worship requirement which was not in the Town’s Zoning Code.  The Court also noted that no deference is given to purely legal interpretations and any ambiguity in the Zoning Code must be interpreted in favor of the applicant.

Based on the foregoing, the Appellate Division reversed the Supreme Court and ZBA, finding that the proposed Mikvah was a “neighborhood place of worship” which was a permitted use in the zoning district in which the property was located.

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