Judge rules in favor of WeCALU in Lettuce Factory Case
Decision delays CEA Fresh Farms project
Judge Gail Donofrio ruled in favor of the Webster Citizens for Appropriate Land Use (WeCALU) in the case between WeCALU and the Town of Webster et al. regarding the town’s process in determining the proposed lettuce factory project.
WeCALU filed an Article 78 petition in New York State Supreme Court on December 19, 2019, two weeks after the Webster Planning Board gave final approval to CEA Fresh Farms to build a large lettuce factory.
According to an official press release shared by WeCALU, Judge Donofrio agreed with the citizens group that the town Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) should have heard their appeal - filed November 14, 2019 - of the town’s conclusion that “the proposed facility is a permitted use in the LL Zoning District pursuant to Town Code 225-12(A)(6),” stating that, “the rejection of the appeal by the Deputy Town Attorney without presenting it to the ZBA was improper.”
CEA seeks to build greenhouses to grow leafy greens on a 140.8 acre parcel of land on State Road in the Town of Webster. In October 2019, CEA submitted an application to the Webster Town Planning Board for approval. The agenda for the Planning Board’s November 19, 2019 meeting stated:
“Applicant CEA Fresh Farms is requesting CONCEPT PLAN REVIEW to construct a GREENHOUSE FACILITY to be located on 140.8 acres on State Road. The proposed facility is a permitted use in the LL (Large Lot) Zoning District pursuant to Town Code 225-12(A)(6).”
“Because the appeal challenging the determination that the Project was a permitted use under the Town Code was never presented to or heard by the ZBA, it must be remanded to the ZBA for consideration,” Judge Donofrio stated. “The ZBA is directed to address petitioner’s appeal and this matter is remanded to the ZBA for that purpose. Moreover, since all of the Planning Board approvals were made after petitioner filed its appeal, the approvals must be annulled.”
“In essence, everything that transpired with the Town of Webster regarding this project since WeCALU’s appeal on November 14, 2019 is disregarded and the matter must be taken up by the Webster ZBA,” Tim Young, spokesperson for WeCALU, stated.
“WeCALU fully intends to continue to pursue this matter with the ZBA, and beyond, if necessary,” Young added. “It has been the group’s mission, from day one, to assure that this project, and others like it, are planned and constructed in accordance with the laws and Comprehensive Master Plan of the Town of Webster.”
As a result of the ruling, which was issued on May 18, the project has been delayed.
In response to the court’s decision, Webster Town Supervisor Tom Flaherty shared the following statement on behalf of the Town of Webster:
“The decision creates a precedent that causes procedural challenges for Webster and the other 900+ towns in New York. Simply said, one interpretation could be that any individual in the future who sees an agenda item on the Planning Board meeting [agenda] they don't like can reference the decision to make it go before the Zoning Board of Appeals first.”
According to the court ruling, the petition/complaint (i.e. WeCALU) alleges six causes of action:
The first cause of action asserts the Project does not comply with the Town of Webster Zoning Code §§ 225-12, 225-73[F], 225-73[D] and 225-11[B], and therefore, the actions of the Town were arbitrary, capricious and illegal.
The second and alternative cause of action asks for a writ of mandamus to require the ZBA to hear the ZBA appeal.
The third cause of action asserts the Project does not comply with SEQRA because it should be a Type I Action (6 NYCRR § 617.4[b][i]), not a Type II Action (6 NYCRR § 617.5[c]), and therefore, the actions of the Town were arbitrary, capricious and illegal.
The fourth cause of action asserts the Project does not comply with the NYS Open Meetings Law (Public Officer’s Law §103[e]) and therefore, the actions of the Town were arbitrary, capricious and illegal.
The fifth cause of action asserts the Project does not meet the standards for site plan approval contained in Zoning Code § 228-6, and therefore, the actions of the Town were arbitrary, capricious and illegal.
The sixth cause of action generally asserts the Approvals may otherwise be in violation of other laws, regulations and procedures and/or arbitrary and capricious.