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Ripeness, Finality and Subject Matter Jurisdiction on Justiciable Land Use Claims: Sunrise Detox V, LLC v. City of White Plains

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on July 16, 2016 Category: Firm News, First Amendment, Land Use and Zoning

 

Sunrise Detox V, LLC (“Sunrise”) sought to establish a facility in White Plains, New York (the “City”) for individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. To accomplish its goal, Sunrise applied for a special use permit for its proposed facility: a building located in the City’s R2-2.5 zoning district that had previously been used as a nursing home. Pursuant to the City’s zoning ordinance, the proposed facility would have to qualify as a “community residence” or a “domiciliary care facility,” and be granted a special permit from the City’s Common Council.

In June of 2012, Sunrise submitted its application for a special use permit to the City Department of Building. In the application’s cover letter, Sunrise stated that the residence would “operate as a short-term medically monitored facility” treating “adults who have primary substance use disorder which requires medical detoxification.” Styled as a “community residence,” the facility would have a maximum capacity of 33 beds, and an average client stay of 5.7 days. Having determined the application to be complete, the commissioner of the Department of Building forwarded Sunrise’s proposal to the Common Council. From there, the application was deemed “officially submitted at received” by the Common Council, and was then forwarded to the Planning Board. The Planning Board unanimously recommended approval for a period of one year, finding that “the proposed community residence meets the special permit requirements.” In accordance with the procedures set out in the zoning ordinance, a public hearing was set for September 4, 2012.

However, public opposition to the facility mounted, and as a result, Sunrise sought to delay the hearings. After two adjournments and two open sessions, the Common Council ended public hearings on December 3, 2012. Sunrise then wrote to the Common Council to request a reasonable accommodation to treat Sunrise’s proposed use as a “community residence.” The Common Council responded by referring Sunrise’s application back to the Planning Board for reconsideration. The Planning Board reiterated its view that Sunrise’s proposal met the zoning ordinance’s special permit requirements, but local residents argued that the facility did not qualify as a “community residence.” Instead, residents asserted that the proposed number of beds and short client stays classified the facility a “short-term inpatient treatment facility.” On February 27, 2013, the commissioner of the Department of Building issued a revised determination. The commissioner noted that the Department had “initially concluded that the proposed facility most closely matched the ‘community residence’ definition,” but explained that the newly submitted information had led it to reconsider. The Department’s new stance was that the services provided by Sunrise were properly classified as “crisis services,” so that the “closest appropriate zoning ordinance classification . . . [was] Hospitals of Sanitaria”—a use not permitted in the R2-2.5 zone.

Thus, in order to proceed with its application, Sunrise would need to seek a variance or appeal the Department’s determination to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Instead, Sunrise chose to file suit on March 11, 2013, alleging that the City intentionally discriminated against it and its prospective clients; that the commissioner’s interpretation of “community residence” disparately impacted Sunrise and its prospective clients; and that the City had failed to offer a reasonable accommodation by allowing Sunrise’s proposed use of the property. The district court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that Sunrise’s claims were unripe for adjudication. The district court also concluded that the futility exception to the final determination requirement did not apply. As a result, Sunrise appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

According to the Second Circuit, “[b]ecuase ‘[r]ipeness is a jurisdictional inquiry,’ landowners bringing zoning challenges must meet ‘the “high burden” of proving that we can look to a final, definitive position from a local authority to assess precisely how they can use their property’ before this court may entertain their claims.” Sunrise Detox V, LLC v. City of White Plains, 769 F.3d 118, 122 (2014) (quoting Murphy v. New Milford Zoning Comm’n, 402 F.3d 342 (2d Cir. 2005)). To this point, Sunrise argued that this final-decision requirement does not apply to zoning challenges based on allegations of intentional discrimination because those cause a uniquely immediate injury rendering such claims ripe from the act of discrimination. In the alternative, Sunrise argued that the suit was ripe either because the City constructively denied its application or because further pursuit of the application would have been futile.

However, the Supreme Court has articulated specific ripeness requirements applicable to land-use disputes, and has specifically held that a takings claim “is not ripe until the government entity charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.” Williamson Cnty. Reg’l Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 186 (1985). The purpose of the ripeness requirement is to “ensure that a dispute has generated injury significant enough to satisfy the case or controversy requirement of Article III of the U.S. Constitution.” Dougherty v. Town of N. Hempstead Bd. of Zoning Appeals, 282 F.3d 83, 90 (2d Cir. 2002). Williamson County’s final-decision requirement helps distinguish between those cases in which a plaintiff has suffered a “concrete and particularized,” “actual or imminent” injury, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992), and those in which the injury is “merely speculative and may never occur, depending on the final administrative resolution.” Dougherty, 282 F.3d at 90. According to Williamson County, “the factors of particular significance in the [takings] inquiry . . . . simply cannot be evaluated until the administrative agency has arrived at a final, definitive position regarding how it will apply the regulations at issue to the particular land in question.” “In other words, a non-final decision on how a parcel of land may be used does not ordinarily give rise to an injury that is sufficiently concrete and particularized to satisfy Article III.” Sunrise Detox V, LLC, 769 F.3d at 122.

In response, Sunrise argued that the distinction between the rights at issue in Williamson County and in the case at hand demonstrate that the Williamson County principle has its limits. Specifically, Sunrise alleged that Williamson County involved a claim of regulatory taking, and in such a case, the landowner seeks compensation for a harm that is inherent in the denial of the permit itself, which is not complete until the proposed land use is finally and definitely forbidden. In contrast, Sunrise was the victim of an act of disability discrimination forbidden by federal law, and the injury from such discrimination was experienced as soon as there was an official act with a discriminatory motive. The court noted that “[g]enerally, when a public official violates constitutional or statutory rights of citizens to equal treatment, we allow resort to the federal courts to vindicate those rights, without requiring the offended person to exhaust potentially available state remedies first.” Id. at 123; see Patsy v. Fla. Bd. of Regents, 457 U.S. 496, 516 (1982); Doe v. Pfrommer, 148 F.3d 73, 78 (2d Cir. 1998). However, “the victim of discrimination normally seeks compensation, in the form of money damages, for the violation of his or her rights.” Id. Therefore, “because Sunrise [did] not seek compensatory damages from the official who it claims acted out of discriminatory motivation, but rather [sought] an injunction blocking the disapproval and authorizing construction of its project” the court found that the “relief sought [brought] the case squarely within the compass of Williamson County . . . .” Id. In reaching this decision, the court noted that it is only after Sunrise completes the application process, and an allowance or a rejection of the permit is finalized, will it be known whether the alleged discriminatory decision of an official had any effect on Sunrise’s application.

Therefore, the court held that a plaintiff alleging discrimination in the context of a land-use dispute is subject to the final-decision requirement unless he can show that he has suffered some injury independent of the challenged land-use decision:

Thus . . . a plaintiff need not await a final decision to challenge a zoning policy that is discriminatory on its face, Jackson v. Okaloosa Cnty., Fla., 21 F.3d 1531, 1541 (11th Cir. 1994), or the manipulation of a zoning process out of discriminatory animus to avoid a final decision, Groome Res. Ltd. v. Parish of Jefferson, 234 F.3d 192, 199-200 (5th Cir. 2000). In those cases, “pursuit of a further administrative decision would do nothing to further define [the] injury,” and the “claim should not be subject to the application of the Williamson ripeness test.” Dougherty, 282 F.3d at 90.

Id.

In the instant case, Sunrise alleged that the commissioner’s determination that its facility did not qualify as a “community residence” and the Common Council’s failure to take further action on its application thereafter caused it an immediate injury. However, the court concluded that neither of these acts gave rise to an injury independent of the City’s ultimate land-use decision. Therefore, Sunrise was required to “prov[e] that [the court] can look to a final, definitive position” from the City regarding its application before the court could entertain its claims. Murphy, 402 F.3d at 347. The Williamson County final decision requirement “conditions federal review on a property owner submitting at least one meaningful application for a variance.” Id. at 348. By forgoing the avenues for relief outlined in the commissioner’s revised determination, Sunrise deprived the City of an opportunity to issue a final decision. According to the court, “[a] federal lawsuit at this stage would inhibit the kind of give-and-take negotiation that often resolves land use problems and would in that way impair or truncate a process that must be allowed to run its course.” Sunrise Detox V, LLC, 769 F.3d at 124.

The court further highlighted Sunrise’s failure to comply with the final-decision requirement through Sunrise’s characterization of the City’s response to tis request for a reasonable accommodation as a “constructive denial” of its application. Because Sunrise’s request sought the same result as a special permit application, the court was not convinced that the City ignored the request by incorporating it into the application. See Oxford House Inc. v. City of Virginia Beach, 825 F.Supp. 1251, 1261 (E.D. Va. 1990) (stating that the “zoning process, including the hearings on applications for conditional use permits, serves” Congress’s purpose to provide municipalities with “the opportunity to adjust their generally applicable rules to allow handicapped individuals equal access to housing.”) Further, to prevail on a reasonable accommodation claim, “plaintiffs must first provide the governmental entity an opportunity to accommodate them through the entity’s established procedures used to adjust the neutral policy in question.” Tsombanidis v. W. Haven Fire Dep’t, 352 F.3d 565, 578 (2d Cir. 2003). Thus, Sunrise’s failure to pursue a variance or to appeal the commissioner’s determination deprived the City of this opportunity.

Finally, the court was unconvinced that requiring Sunrise to pursue administrative appeal or an application for a variance would be futile. The City’s Board of Appeals does not “lack[] discretion to grant variances[.]” Murphy, 402 F.3d at 349. “Sunrise’s own failure to ‘submit[] at least one meaningful application for a variance’ prevented the court from determining whether the board ‘ha[d] dug in its heels and made clear that all such applications will be denied,’ so as to permit the court to treat the matter appealed from as ripe for judicial consideration.” Sunrise Detox V, LLC, 769 F.3d at 122 (quoting Murphy, 402 F.3d at 349). Therefore, the court found no basis for application of the futility exception to the final-decision requirement.

 

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