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Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s Constitutional Argument Convinces Court to Protect Client’s Property Rights

A neighbor of Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s client, a Westchester County property owner, sought approval from the Rye City Planning Commission to modify the deed restricted front yard setback lines of the neighbor’s property. The neighbor wanted to demolish the existing house located on his property and build a new house closer to the street with a swimming pool in the backyard between the new house and the environmentally protected wetlands at the back of the property.

Both the neighbor’s and the client’s adjoining properties are within a subdivision established in 1966 according to a plan of common and uniform development. The setback lines in issue are shown on the subdivision map that was approved by the planning commission in 1966. The Rye City Code provides that such setback lines when approved by the planning commission and shown on a subdivision map “shall constitute a deed restriction upon the placement of the buildings upon each lot affected.”

Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s client employed local Westchester counsel to oppose the neighbor’s application before the planning commission contending that the setback lines were deed restrictions that ran with the land and could not be modified. The planning commission ruled in favor of the neighbor holding that it had the right to modify zoning restrictions, and, because environmental laws governing the wetlands at the back of the property had not been enacted in 1966, when the front yard setbacks were approved, the changed circumstances justified the setback modification the neighbor requested.

The client commenced a proceeding to overturn the decision of the Rye City Planning Commission as arbitrary and capricious. Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. was then retained as special co-counsel in the case to argue that the planning commission’s action was not only arbitrary and capricious, but also unconstitutional because, by voiding the deed restricted setback lines, vested property rights of Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s client were divested in violation of the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution which provides that “No State shall . . . pass any . . . law impairing the Obligation of Contract.”

Initially, the Westchester Supreme Court which heard the case ruled against Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s client holding (a) that the front yard setback lines were not deed restrictions, and (b) that the planning commission’s decision was not a “legislative act” and, therefore, not violative of the contracts clause. A motion to reargue was made in which the court was persuaded to acknowledge that the setback lines were indeed deed restrictions and “as such cannot be interfered with by a legislative body.” Based on Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s arguments, the court was also persuaded that, when the planning commission modified the setback lines, the commission had acted as a legislative body, and the court held, therefore, that the “Planning Commission had no authority as a deed restriction, to limit or negate said restriction by approving the setback lines outside the perimeter of the dotted lines on the subdivision map.”

Accordingly, the court held that the planning commission “did abuse their authority by approving Respondent’s request for a front yard setback modification,” and it granted Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s client’s petition to void the planning commission decision.

The Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. partners who handled this matter were Adam Leitman Bailey and John M. Desiderio.

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