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EQUUS ASSOCS. v. TOWN OF SOUTHAMPTON

August 27, 1997

EQUUS ASSOCIATES LTD., Plaintiff,
v.
THE TOWN OF SOUTHAMPTON, THE TOWN BOARD OF THE TOWN OF SOUTHAMPTON, FRED THIELE, MARTHA ROGERS, DOUGLAS PENNY, PATRICK HEANEY, JR., MICHAEL WALSH, GEORGE STARVROPOULOS, MARIETTA SEAMAN, JAMES NEEDHAM, PATRICK HEANEY, SR., and PATRICA NEUMAN, Defendants.


Hon. Arthur D. Spatt, United States District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: SPATT

SPATT, District Judge:

 This section 1983 action arises from the claims of the plaintiff, Equus Associates Ltd. ("Equus" or the "plaintiff"), that the defendants, the Town of Southampton (the "Town"), its Town Board, the current Town Board members, Fred Thiele, Martha Rogers, Douglas Penny and Patrick Heaney, Jr., the past Town Board members who sat on the Board during the relevant time period, George Stavropolous, Marietta Seaman, James Needham, the late Patrick Heaney, Sr. and Patrica Neumann, and the Town Attorney, Michael Walsh (collectively the "defendants"), unlawfully denied its application for a permit to erect six prefabricated dirt floor barns on its property for the purpose of breeding, raising and selling polo ponies. According to the First Amended Complaint, the defendants denied the plaintiff's permit application in violation of its constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and just compensation under the takings clause. Presently before the Court are the defendant's motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff's cross motion for summary judgment with respect to liability on its due process claim, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.

 I. Background

 The plaintiff, Equus Associates Ltd., is a New York corporation in the business of breeding, raising, training, stabling and selling horses for recreational riding and playing polo. As stated above, the defendants are the Town of Southampton, its Town Board, past and present Town Board members and the Town Attorney.

 During the relevant period, the plaintiff was the assignee of a lease of approximately 65 acres of farmland located in Bridgehampton, New York in the Town of Southampton. The lessors, Anthony E. Tiska, Jr. and Gail O. Tiska were participants in the Farmland Preservation Program ("Farmland Program" or "Program"), which was designed to preserve agricultural open lands within the Town. Under the Program, in 1982, the Tiskas sold their "development rights to the Town retaining the right to use the property for 'agricultural production' as that term is used in section 301 of the New York State Agricultural and Markets Law" and entered an indenture to this effect. According to the plaintiffs, the Tiskas became participants in the Farmland Program in reliance upon an amendment to the Town Code of the Town of Southampton ("Town Code") enacted on May 26, 1981 pursuant to which the Town Board added "Horse Back Riding Academy and Horse Stabling Facilities" to the list of permissible uses for land governed by the Program (the "1981 amendment"). Equus alleges that as result of the 1981 amendment, the number of participants in the Farmland Program increased from one to 15.

 On February 28, 1991, Equus applied to the Town Board for a permit to build six prefabricated dirt floor barns which could be removed without difficulty by subsequent owners. The barns would occupy only one-third of one acre on the 65 acre plot. The plaintiff alleges that at the time of the application the lands of two other Farm Program participants, David Birdsall and Seong Jik Moon, were being used for horse riding and horse stabling.

 
Construction permit. The Town Board shall be empowered to authorize construction by the issuance, after a public hearing, of a permit, as follows:
 
(a) For the construction of buildings and other structures customarily accessory and incidental to agricultural production as same is presently defined by § 301 of the New York State Agriculture and Markets Law; provided, however, that no such permit shall be issue for the erection or maintenance of any building or other structures intended for human habitation.
 
(b) All construction permit applications shall be referred by the Town Board to the Farmland Committee which shall investigate the application and report its recommendations to the Town Board.
 
(c) Any construction permit issued pursuant to this section shall be subject to such conditions and limitations as the Town Board shall see fit, in the reasonable exercise of its discretion, to impose.

 The plaintiff's permit application was referred to the Town's Farmland Committee to investigate. On April 16, 1991, the Committee issued it report concluding that:

 
the inclusion of horse farms, horse stabling facilities, and horse back riding academies was something that was within the general contemplation of the Town at the time of the passage of the Development Rights Program and immediately thereafter, as witnessed by the 1981 amendment/clarification of the Town Code expressly to include horseback riding academies and horse stabling facilities to permitted agricultural uses as defined by Section 301 of the Agricultural and Markets Law.

 The Farmland Committee further determined that because the Tiskas joined the Farmland Program after the 1981 amendment, it would be reasonable to conclude that in selling their development rights to the Town, they relied on the fact that the land could be still be used as a horseback riding academy or horse stabling facility.

 According to Equus, during the application process, the Town Board members began receiving political pressure to deny the permit. As a result of this pressure, argues the plaintiff, the Town Attorney, Michael Walsh, submitted two opinion letters to the Town Board dated April 23, 1991, and August 7, 1991. In these letters, Walsh maintains that the New York State Constitution and the General Municipal Law prohibited the plaintiff's proposed use of the land, and that equestrian uses of the property would be contrary to the intent of the Farmland Program. Affidavit of Andrew B. Messite, Dec. 6, 1996 ("Messite Aff.") Ex. E, F.

 The Town Board then requested an "advisory opinion" from the Town Planning Board regarding the plaintiff's permit application. On June 20, 1991, the Town Planning Board issued an opinion asserting that the 1981 amendment was "legally ...


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