On November 19, 2015, in Sierra Cub v. Village of Painted Post, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, reversed a decision by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which had found that an individual petitioner lacked standing to challenge actions of the Village of Painted Post on State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) grounds. In so doing, the Court continued a trend towards loosening restrictions on people to gain relief from the courts based on claims of environmental harm. The question of standing when it comes to SEQRA challenges asks whether the petitioner has a sufficient interest in the environmental issues to be permitted to ask the court for help.
In 1991, the Court of Appeals decided Society of Plastics Industries v. County of Suffolk. A trade organization sought to challenge a Suffolk County ban on plastic bags on the ground that the County failed to comply with SEQRA. The Court of Appeals dismissed the challenge, stating, in part, that “[i]n land use matters … the plaintiff, for standing purposes, must show that it would suffer direct harm, injury that is in some way different from that of the public at large.” Because there was no showing of direct environmental (as opposed to economic) harm to the members of the trade organization, the Court of Appeals found they lacked standing to challenge the County law.
In 2009, in Matter of Save the Pine Bush Inc. v. Common Council of City of Albany, the Court of Appeals took up the standing question again, exploring whether members of an environmental group concerned with protecting the Pine Barrens in Albany County had a sufficient interest different from the public at large to claim they were directly injured by the challenged municipal actions. The Court of Appeals agreed the petitioners had standing because they alleged “repeated, not rare or isolated use” of the pine barrens recreational area, so they suffered harm different that “the public at large.”
In the Village of Painted Post case, the Village entered into a lease to permit a railroad company to construct a water transloading facility on an 11.8 acre parcel of land. It also entered into an agreement with a subsidiary of Shell Oil to sell it up to 1.5 million gallons of water per day, which would be loaded onto trains at the new transloading facility. A number of environmental groups and individuals who resided along the railroad tracks challenged the lease and bulk water sales agreement on the ground that the Village failed to comply with SEQRA’s strict procedural requirements. The lower court found that none of the environmental groups had standing, in part, because none of the individual petitioners claimed to be members and the organizational interest was too generalized to establish standing. Further, the lower court found that all but one of the individual petitioners lacked standing because the noise they encountered from trains on the tracks and their concern about water quality from the sale of water was general harm of concern to the public at large. One petitioner, however, Marvin, was found to have standing. Marvin alleged he could see the loading facility from his house, and that noise from the trains kept him up at night. The Appellate Division disagreed, finding that Marvin’s concern about the noise of the trains was no different from those of all the residents of the Village who resided near the tracks.
The Court of Appeals addressed only Marvin’s standing. It found that it does not matter that more than one person is directly impacted by the noise created from increased train traffic. It quoted with approval a 1973 US Supreme Court case [United States v. Students Challenging Regulatory Agency Procedures (SCRAP)], where the Supreme Court said:
“[W]e have … made it clear that standing is not to be denied simply because many people suffer the same injury … To deny standing to persons who are in fact injured simply because many others are also injured, would mean that the most injurious and widespread Government actions could be questioned by nobody.” )
The Court of Appeals thus rejected the reasoning of the Appellate Division that, “because there are multiple residents who are directly impacted, no resident of the Village would have standing to challenge the actions of the Village”. Because Marvin alleged that increased train traffic kept him awake at night, even without differentiating between train traffic on the tracks and noise form the loading facility, he had standing to challenge the actions of the Village pursuant to SEQRA.
It thus appears that, as long as an individual can assert direct harm from the challenged municipal action of the type that falls within the interests that SEQRA is intended to protect, he or she will be found to have standing, even though many others suffer the same direct harm.
The result will be that more challenges to municipal actions will be decided on their merits.