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DITTMER v. COUNTY OF SUFFOLK

August 13, 1997

HENRY DITTMER, et al., Plaintiffs, against COUNTY OF SUFFOLK, TOWN OF RIVERHEAD, TOWN OF SHOUTHAMPTON, TOWN OF BROOKHAVEN, CENTRAL PINE BARRENS JOINT PLANNING AND POLICY COMMISSION, ROBERT J. GEFFNEY, RAY E. COWEN, VINCENT CONNUSCIO, FELIX GRUCCI, and JAMES STACK, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: PLATT

 PLATT, District Judge.

 Defendants move to dismiss the above-captioned action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) on the basis of the abstention doctrine. Defendants also move to dismiss plaintiffs' due process, equal protection, takings, and 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

 BACKGROUND

 Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that the New York Pine Barrens Protection Act ("the Act"), legislation establishing a comprehensive land use planning and regulatory framework for the Long Island Central Pine Barrens area ("the Area"), is unconstitutional on its face. Plaintiffs seek to enjoin defendants from implementing the Act.

 Prior to the Act's passage, the New York State Court of Appeals recognized both the importance of the Area and the need for comprehensive planning to ensure its protection. See Long Isl. Pine Barrens Soc'y, Inc. v. Planning Bd. of the Town of Brookhaven, 80 N.Y.2d 500, 591 N.Y.S.2d 982, 988-89, 606 N.E.2d 1373 (1992) (noting that "an exhaustive and thorough approach to evaluating projects affecting [the Area] is unquestionably desirable and, indeed, may well be essential to its preservation"). Prior efforts to protect the Area have been extensive, but the Act represents the first comprehensive culmination of such efforts. The Act has two central goals: (1) to preserve the ecosystem for future generations; and (2) to protect the aquifer underlying the Area that is the sole drinking water supply for Long Island's 2.5 million inhabitants.

 The Act divides the Area into a Core Preservation Area ("Core Area") and a Compatible Growth Area. Plaintiffs are landowners in the Core Area.

 The Act provides for establishment of a Planning Commission charged with preparation of a plan designed to attain the Act's purposes. The Commission prepared such a plan ("the Plan"), which was signed by Governor Pataki on 28 June 1995 and ratified by the affected towns and county. The Commission is further charged with reviewing permit applications for development within the Area, granting variances by majority vote, and establishing a "Development Rights Bank" to determine values and set standards for purchase, sale, ownership, and transfer of development rights. The Act specifically provides for State court review of any final determination made pursuant to the Act.

 An attack on the Act and the Plan in State court has been proceeding for several years. As in the present action, the Complaint in that proceeding--filed 15 September 1994--sets forth equal protection, due process, and takings claims challenging the validity of the Act and Plan. The parties to that case, WJF Realty and Reed Rubin v. State of New York et al., Supreme Court, Suffolk County, No. 94 22784, have been actively litigating a converted motion to dismiss since 7 December 1994, including the filing of numerous memoranda and supporting materials over the last two years. As in the instant action, the plaintiffs in that action are landowners in the Core Area.

 DISCUSSION

 Defendants argue that the Court must abstain in light of the extensive litigation that has taken place on essentially the same question in State court. In something of a shotgun approach, they urge the Court to abstain under each of the classical doctrines enunciated by the Supreme Court in Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., Burford v. Sun Oil Co., Younger v. Harris, and Colorado River Water Conserv. Dist. v. United States. After a careful review of each of those and subsequent decisions, the Court has concluded that only the Burford and Colorado River abstention doctrines are applicable in the instant case.

 All abstention arguments must be analyzed against the general principle that federal courts have a "virtually unflagging obligation" to exercise jurisdiction, "even if an action concerning the same matter is pending in state court." Sheerbonnet, Ltd. v. American Express Bank Ltd, 17 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 813, 130 L. Ed. 2d 23, 115 S. Ct. 67 (1994) (reversing decision to abstain under Burford because tort claims at issue had no specific bearing on underlying State liquidation proceedings).

 I. Burford Abstention

 The Supreme Court in Burford directed federal courts to abstain from interfering with specialized, ongoing state regulatory schemes that involve important state and local interests. Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 333-34, 87 L. Ed. 1424, 63 S. Ct. 1098 (1943). Under Burford, a federal court must abstain where an alternative State forum is available and where "exercise of federal review of the question in a case and in similar cases would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern." New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 361, 105 L. Ed. 2d 298, 109 S. Ct. 2506 (1989); see also Corcoran v. ...


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