Legal Memorandum LU04


SEQRA, ZONING REGULATION AND THE
NORTH ELBA WAL-MART DECISION

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. applied for a conditional use permit and site plan approval from the Town of North Elba to construct a store in the Adirondacks just outside the resort village of Lake Placid in a Scenic Preservation Overlay District with views of Whiteface Mountain. The Town’s Planning Board denied the permits and Wal-Mart challenged the decision. The court held that a municipality may use the potential adverse economic and community-character impacts of a proposed “big-box” development on existing, small retail businesses as bases for the denials. A town’s conditional (special) use permit regulation, however, must contain properly-worded explicit standards. In addition, the potential negative economic impact of the “big-box store” on smaller retail businesses and the visual, aesthetic, community-character and other socio-economic impacts must be explained in the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) documents, local resolutions and findings.

The North Elba Planning Board had adopted a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that addressed the project’s potential visual impact on scenic values and its effects on the community’s general character and ambience. The EIS also analyzed secondary growth effects from increased competition and potential store closings on the adjacent Town and nearby Lake Placid Village areas. The SEQRA findings noted these significant adverse socio-economic and community character impacts.

The court also found, however,
[h]ere, it must be borne in mind that respondent concluded not only that the proposal did not meet the requirements of SEQRA, but also that it did not satisfy the relevant criteria set forth in the Town Land Use Code, including two of the three specific conditions for obtaining a conditional use permit (namely, those providing that a permit will only be granted if the proposed use "will not have a materially adverse impact upon adjoining and nearby properties," and "will not result in a clearly adverse aesthetic impact"). Additionally, respondent found that several "general development considerations," which it was constrained to evaluate and which have as their aim the avoidance of "any undue adverse impact on the natural, physical, social and economic resources of the Town," were not met. In making these findings, respondent was entitled to consider factors outside the scope of the environmental review mandated by SEQRA, insofar as they bear on matters legitimately within the purview of the Town Land Use Code.2.

The decision underscores that a municipality should conduct comprehensive planning and

  • identify areas requiring special visual, aesthetic, community character and socio-economic protection;
  • include specific standards for review in the zoning code;
  • develop a strong record;
  • derive conclusions from a thorough analysis of the impacts on the affected community; and
  • articulate the reasons for denials.

It is important to remember, however, that permit denials based upon generalized opposition or sentiment unsupported by the written record are not likely to be upheld by the court.


1 Matter of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., v. Planning Board of the Town of North Elba, 238 AD2d 93, 668 NYS 2d 774 (3d Dept. 1998); see, also Home Depot, USA, Inc. v. Town of Mount Pleasant, 293 AD2d 677 (2d Dept. 2002) lv. to app. den. 99 NY2d 507 (2003).

2 238 A.D.2d at 97, 668 N.Y.S.2d at 776.