The Covid-19 health crisis has sent widely-discussed shockwaves through the real estate industry that could have long-reaching impacts on the future of land use on Long Island. For starters, the pandemic shutdown hit the brick-and-mortar retail industry like a bomb. In addition to devastating small businesses everywhere, the pandemic forced under several long-struggling (and some not-so-struggling) retail giants. The pandemic also caused an urban diaspora of people fleeing New York City with a corresponding surge in residential home purchases throughout the tri-state area. And finally, the pandemic has forcibly introduced the work-from-home business model into many industries that probably had no intention of transitioning to a remote workforce (the practice of law included).
So, what will happen if these trends do not reverse, or at least slow, once this is all over? What will become of vacant “big box” and anchor-tenant spaces? Amazon probably won’t need that many “last-mile” warehouses on Long Island. (Or will it?) What will happen to office buildings and corporate parks if businesses switch to at-home work permanently? Where will former city-dwellers and existing residents alike find housing on an island that was already struggling with a massive housing shortage? The answers to these questions will depend, in part, on the comprehensive land use plans of Long Island’s towns and incorporated villages.
By statute, towns and incorporated villages in New York State are required to exercise their zoning powers in accordance with a “comprehensive plan” that is an expression of the community’s long- and short-term planning goals. (See Town Law § 272-a; Village Law § 7-722). A town or village’s comprehensive plan need not be contained in a single, written document (although it is encouraged), it can also be synthesized from their local zoning code, resolutions and/or zoning maps. (Id.). But regardless of what form a comprehensive plan takes, it is universal that a zoning action that is not consistent with or that directly contradicts a town or village’s comprehensive plan is vulnerable to legal challenge and potential invalidation. (See e.g. Udell v Haas, 21 NY 463 ). For that reason, towns and villages are required to periodically revisit their plans (see Town Law § 272-a; Village Law § 7-722), which can lead to desired and/or necessary amendments to local zoning laws.
The reality is that the real estate industry on Long Island was already in a state of transition when the pandemic struck. Concepts like “mixed use” developments, “transit-oriented” developments, “walkability,” and “downtown revitalization” were already working their way into Long Island communities, with widely varied degrees of success. At the same time, the retail industry was already shrinking and looking for ways to reinvent the in-person shopping experience to compete with online sales. However, the zoning codes of some of Long Island’s towns and villages reveal that some parts of the Island have been slow or even reluctant to embrace redevelopment to meet evolving real estate trends. Indeed, some zoning codes simply do not contemplate or address the evolving trends mentioned above. Consequently, these same areas may not be as equipped as others to deal with the pandemic’s yet-unknown permanent impacts on Long Island real estate.
Admittedly, the process of updating a comprehensive plan is a time-consuming and potentially expensive one. Most often, the process involves the formation of a formal committee, retention of professional consultants, and months (or longer) of in-depth analysis and planning. And by law, the process must include a public hearing and appropriate environmental study in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). (See Town Law § 272-a, ; Village Law § 7-722, ), However, updating a comprehensive plan also gives towns and villages a tool to actively embrace change and to help shape it rather than having change creep in solely, or break down the doors. For all these reasons, it is important for every town and village on Long Island to be aware of their comprehensive plans and to consider whether a comprehensive plan update is on the horizon.