Despite potential substantive merit to Plaintiffs’ federal and state constitutional claims, the Federal District Court of the Northern District of New York in Rivendell Winery LLC v. Town of New Paltz dismissed Plaintiffs’ complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on ripeness grounds as a result of the Plaintiffs’ failure to either obtain a final variance decision or to satisfy the relatively high burden for showing that an application for a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals would have been futile. The crux of the decision lies in the Court’s reiteration of an important principle that although the success of a land use application may seem doubtful, doubt alone is insufficient to establish that the decision maker has dug in its heels and made certain that the application will be denied. As such, absent facts establishing that a final decision was obtained or that seeking a decision would be futile, constitutionally-based claims or challenges to other pre-decision actions taken by a governmental agency or its officers or employees may not be ripe for adjudication.
In this case, the Plaintiffs, Rivendell Winery, LLC and its principal owner, Susan L. Wine, had sought to reopen a winery and grape-growing business and had acquired two parcels of land in the Town of New Paltz, New York for this purpose. The property was located in the A-1.5 Zoning District which permits agricultural uses as of right. Although the term “agricultural” is not defined under the zoning definition section of the Town of New Paltz Town Code, it is defined elsewhere in zoning provisions as:
[a]ll agricultural operations and activities related to the growing or raising of crops, livestock, or livestock products, and agricultural products, as such terms are defined in or governed by the Agriculture and Markets Law of the State of New York on land qualified under Ulster County and NYS law for an agricultural exemption by the Assessor of the Town of New Paltz.
Plaintiffs submitted an application to the Ulster County Legislature seeking to include the two parcels of land in Ulster County Agricultural District No. 2 and filed an application with the Town Planning Board seeking approval of Plaintiffs’ proposed use of the property within the A-1.5 zoning district.
The Town Building Inspector
Although Plaintiffs had received prior confirmation from the Planning Board Chairperson that the proposed use was “agricultural” and therefore permissible, the Town’s Building Inspector visited the premises and issued a letter to the Planning Board concluding that although the winery is permissible, the retail sale of wine from the house would require a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals since the Town Code only permits the retail sale of agricultural products grown on the same lot from a road stand. Despite this determination, the Building Inspector later changed his determination finding that the winery was not a permissible agricultural use, and therefore a variance must be obtained from the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”).
More bad news followed when Plaintiffs withdrew their application after being contacted by a representative of the Ulster County Legislature that suggested they withdraw their application due to public opposition despite a favorable recommendation from the Ulster County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board. Plaintiffs believed the actions of Building Inspector were the result of undue influence by the Ulster County District Attorney for his own personal and economic reasons and that the action by the legislative representative was motivated by similar reasoning.
Plaintiffs appealed the determination of the Building Inspector to the ZBA. Plaintiffs submitted various documents in support of their appeal, including:
- a favorable letter from the New York State Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets confirming that the proposed use of the property constituted a “farm operation,”
- a determination from the Town Assessor that nine acres of Plaintiffs property would qualify for an agricultural exemption and
- a favorable interpretation from the Ulster County Planning Board.
Despite this documentation, the ZBA unanimously voted to deny Plaintiffs’ appeal. Plaintiffs challenged the ZBA’s decision in an Article 78 proceeding that was unsuccessful at both the Supreme Court and later at the Appellate Division, Third Department.
The Federal Court Filing
Plaintiffs subsequently commenced suit in federal court alleging numerous constitutional violations including:
- a violation of their federal right to petition the government for the redress of grievances,
- procedural and substantive due process violations and
- equal protection violations.
The Defendants, which were comprised of the Town of New Paltz, the Zoning Board of Appeals for the Town of New Paltz and its individual members, as well as Susan Zimet, a representative in the Ulster County Legislature and The County of Ulster, moved to dismiss Plantiffs’ complaint. In light of the legal principles set forth above, the Court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss since Plaintiffs had failed to apply for a variance from the ZBA to permit the proposed winery and associated sale of wine.
The lesson to be learned from all of this is that just like grapes need to be ripened for wine, so too must claims be ripened prior to being adjudicated. No matter how doubtful a favorable decision may appear to be, in order for claims to be ripe for review, it is critical that a final decision first be obtained or that facts be plead to overcome the high burden of establishing that such an application would have been futile. Luckily for Plaintiffs, all is not lost. The Court dismissed their claims without prejudice to their right to refile in the event they are unsuccessful in their variance application.