On October 27, 2009 the New York State Court of Appeals made the most important decision regarding standing in SEQRA cases in perhaps the last 18 years. The court ruled in Save the Pine Bush v. Common Council of City of Albany, that standing to challenge the environmental impact of a proposed development is not limited to those who live near the location of the project. The court held that a person who “can prove he or she uses and enjoys a natural resource more than most other members of the public has standing under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).” This decision had been long awaited by environmental attorneys and environmentalists, as well as by city planners.
This case involved the proposed development of a large hotel on 3.6 acres of property in Albany County. The land is not part of, but near, the Pine Bush reserve, which is known for its large pine barrens region. (On the merits, the court denied plaintiffs the relief they sought.)
Standing has long been an issue in cases involving SEQRA. In 1991, the Court of Appeals held, in Society of Plastics Industry Inc. v. County of Suffolk, 77 NY2d 762, that for standing purposes, a plaintiff has to show it “would suffer direct harm” and an injury that is in “some way different from that of the public at large.” Society of Plastics has consistently been used successfully by defendants in SEQRA cases to exclude plaintiffs who do not live in close proximity to the affected natural resource, even though Society of Plasticsitself did not fashion a proximity requirement.
In this case, Judge Smith wrote that residence close to a challenged project is not an indispensible element of standing under Society of Plastics. The closest plaintiff to the land in this case lived a half-mile away from the development site. Judge Smith expressed his concerns that a residency rule would be “arbitrary, and would mean in many cases that there would be no plaintiff with standing to sue while there might be many who suffered real injury.”
This case is sure to serve as important precedent in similar SEQRA challenges by environmental groups as well as members of the public at large.