June 25, 2015

In Deitrich v. Planning Board of Town of West Seneca, 118 A.D.3d 1419 (4th Sept. 2015), Petitioner applied to the Planning Board of the Town of West Seneca (Erie County) for site plan approval to construct an all-terrain vehicle track on his property. The Supreme Court found that the Planning Board exceeded its jurisdiction in requiring and denying site plan approval and the Fourth Department Appellate Division reversed.

The Fourth Department agreed with the Planning Board that requiring site plan approval was neither irrational, unreasonable nor inconsistent with the governing code. The Town Code excepted from the site plan requirement any “[p]ermitted accessory residential structures and uses.” Inasmuch as the subject property was Zoned R–65A, permissible uses of the property included private garages or off-street parking areas, family swimming pools, greenhouses, and horse stables as well as “[o]ther customary accessory uses.” The Court agreed with the Planning Board that it did not act irrationally or unreasonably when it determined that the ATV track, which featured “six- to eight-foot jumps” and “rumble strips,” did not fall within the definition of “[o]ther customary accessory uses.”

In response to the applicant’s argument that the Court erred in vacating and annulling the Planning Board’s decision, the Fourth Department noted that “[t]he authority to approve or deny applications for site development plans is generally vested in local planning boards.” Thus, “[i]n conducting … site plan review, the Planning Board is required to set appropriate conditions and safeguards which are in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the Town’s Zoning Code … To this end, a planning board may properly consider criteria such as whether the proposed project is consistent with the use of surrounding properties, whether it would bring about a noticeable change in the visual character of the area, and whether the change would be irreversible.”

Judicial review is thus limited to the issue “whether the action taken by the Planning Board was illegal, arbitrary, or an abuse of discretion.” The Planning Board’s determination should therefore be sustained so long as it “has a rational basis and is supported by substantial evidence.” Indeed, “[a] reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the … Planning Board, even if there is substantial evidence supporting a contrary determination.”

Based on those legal principles, the Fourth Department concluded that there was substantial evidence to support the Planning Board’s determination that the proposed ATV track was inconsistent with the residential use of surrounding properties. The evidence in the record established that the ATV track would exacerbate existing problems including noise impacts, physical damage and trespass to neighboring properties, and the potential for neighboring landowners to be held liable for injuries occurring on their properties.

The Court also rejected Petitioner’s argument that the matter must be remanded to the Planning Board for findings of fact, finding that in this case the Planning Board “adequately set forth specific findings of fact by indicating that its determination was based on concerns about trespassers, liability, property damage, and noise pollution.” The Court also concluded that remittal was unnecessary “where, as here, the record as a whole addresses the applicable considerations or otherwise provides a basis for concluding that there was a rational basis for the Planning Board’s determination.”

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