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Law School Case Brief

Cohen v. Bd. of Appeals - 100 N.Y.2d 395, 764 N.Y.S.2d 64, 795 N.E.2d 619 (2003)


The supersession power of a local law is subject to additional limitation. A village cannot supersede a state law where a local law is otherwise preempted by state law. Indeed, the preemption doctrine represents a fundamental limitation on home rule powers. While localities have been invested with substantial powers both by affirmative grant and by restriction on state powers in matters of local concern, the overriding limitation of the preemption doctrine embodies the untrammeled primacy of the legislature to act with respect to matters of state concern. Preemption applies both in cases of express conflict between local and state law and in cases where the state has evidenced its intent to occupy the field. The legislature may expressly state its intent to preempt, or that intent may be implied from the nature of the subject matter being regulated as well as the scope and purpose of the state legislative scheme, including the need for state-wide uniformity in a particular area. A comprehensive and detailed statutory scheme may be evidence of the legislature's intent to preempt. A court will examine whether the state has acted upon a subject and whether, in taking action, it has demonstrated a desire that its regulations should preempt the possibility of discordant local regulations. 


Petitioners Jack Cohen and Frank and Jamie Russos applied to their respective Village authorities for area variances. Cohen sought a variance from certain Village of Saddle Rock zoning requirements as a prerequisite to obtaining a permit to build a single-family home on his unimproved oceanfront lot. The Russos applied for a height variance in order to install an 11-foot wrought iron gate in the driveway of their North Hills residence. In both cases, a Village building inspector denied the applications and petitioners appealed to their local Boards of Appeals. Both Boards denied the appeals, finding that petitioners failed to demonstrate "practical difficulties" or "undue hardship" in complying with existing zoning requirements. Frank and Jamie commenced a proceeding in New York state curt seeking to annul the determination of the Saddle Rock Board of Appeals, claiming that the Board should have reviewed the application using the "balancing" test, which had preempted the practical difficulty or undue hardship standard contained in the Village Code. The trial court agreed, invalidating section 150-24 (B) of the Saddle Rock Code, and annulled the determination of the Board. The court remanded the matter to the Board for reconsideration consistent with Village Law § 7-712-b (3). On appeal, the appellate division affirmed, concluding that the Legislature intended Village Law § 7-712-b to preempt enactment of conflicting local laws. The Russos followed a similar course, with the trial court also granting their article 78 petition, annulling the determination of the North Hills Board of Appeals and remanding the matter to the Board for a new determination consistent with Village Law § 7-712-b. Again, the appellate division affirmed. The Board's appealed, and the cases were consolidated for appeal.


Was the Legislature's intention to preempt enactment of conflicting local laws?




The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the orders of the appellate division. The court held that the state legislature intended to preempt enactment of conflicting local laws when it enacted § 7-712-b. The court noted that while local boards still retained authority within their village limits on some aspects of zoning, the issue of area variance review was meant to be unified by the legislature's imposition of a balancing test for all villages and towns. Accordingly, local zoning laws required annulment where they conflicted with the state law.

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