— by Moira Ferguson
Source: In re Sierra Club v. Village of Painted Post, No. 151 (N.Y. Nov. 19, 2015)
Abstract: To have standing to challenge governmental action in land use matters, a party must show it would suffer a “special injury.” An injury is special where it is direct and in some way different from that of the public at large. However, the possibility that more than one person may be harmed by the governmental action does not defeat standing.
The Village of Painted Post is situated at the intersection of the Cohocton, Tioga and Chemung Rivers. Below these rivers sits the Corning aquifer. In February of 2012, the Village entered into a sales agreement with a subsidiary of Shell Oil Co. The sales agreement provided for the sale of 314 million gallons of water from the Corning aquifer, to the Shell Oil Co. subsidiary. The Village also entered into a lease agreement with Wellsboro & Corning Railroad. This lease agreement allowed for the construction of a water transloading facility in the Village. Water from the aquifer would be withdrawn, loaded, and transported via train at this facility.
Following the formation of these two agreements, petitioners commenced a proceeding against the Village. Petitioners included The Sierra Club, People for a Healthy Environment, Inc., Coalition to Protect New York, and individual residents of the Village. Petitioners claimed by failing to take into consideration adverse environmental impacts of the agreements, the Village failed to comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Due to this neglect, petitioners asked the court to preliminarily enjoin any effects of the agreements until the Village complied with SEQRA. In response, the Village moved to dismiss, insisting petitioners lacked standing to bring a claim.
In Society of Plastics Indus. v. Cty of Suffolk, the Court set forth a framework for deciding when parties have standing to challenge governmental action in land use matters generally, and under SEQRA specifically. The Court decided that for standing purposes, the plaintiff must have a “special injury.” To be special, the injury must be direct, and different from that of the injury suffered by the public at large.1
The Supreme Court applied this rationale to each of the petitioners in the present case. The court found the organizations only alleged indirect, generalized environmental injuries that the public at large would suffer. These did not equate to the special injuries needed to confer standing. However, the Supreme Court found one individual petitioner, John Marvin, did suffer direct harm, distinct from that suffered by the general public. This harm equated to the special injury required to confer standing to challenge a governmental action in land use matters.
Marvin was a longtime resident of the Village, and lived less than a block for the transloading facility. He stated that when the water trains began running, the noises were so loud that they kept him and his wife awake at night. Marvin worried the noises would degrade not only the value of his home, but the quality of his life.
The Appellate Division also applied the standing framework set out in Society of Plastics, but rendered an opposite holding. The Appellate Division focused on the fact that Marvin complained about the noise from the trains, but did not address the noise from the transloading facility. The court acknowledged that many other Village residents lived along the train tracks, were subject to the injurious noise of the trains, and therefore suffered the same injury as Marvin. For the Appellate Division, because many residents of the Village suffered the same injury as Marvin, Marvin’s injury was not direct or different from that of the public at large. Therefore, he did not establish the special injury required to confer standing.
The Court of Appeals found the Appellate Division applied an overly restrictive analysis of the requirement to show standing. The Court reiterated that to have standing to challenge a governmental action in land use matters generally, the petitioner must suffer a special injury, meaning the injury is direct and is different from that of the public at large. However, to be special, the injury need not be unique.
Here, Marvin did not assert the increased train noise would cause him an indirect, collateral harm, congruent to the burden felt by the public at large. Instead, Marvin alleged a particularized harm that may also be inflicted upon other residents of the Village who live near the train tracts. Standing is not to be denied simply because many people suffer the same injuries.
The Court found the Appellate Division’s restrictive analysis of standing has detrimental effects on the judiciary system. Specifically, to deny standing to persons who are injured, simply because others suffer the same injury, insulates the most injurious and widespread government action from judicial review.
Although other Village citizens residing along the tracks could hear the trains, for Marvin, the injurious noise was still direct and different from that of the public at large. Accordingly, the noise equated to a special injury, sufficient to confer standing to challenge the Village’s two agreements, the governmental action that lead to Marvin’s injuries.