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In re Avella

New York Court of Appeals

June 6, 2017

In the Matter of Senator Tony Avella, et al., Respondents,
v.
City of New York, et al., Respondents, Queens Development Group, LLC, et al., Appellants.

          Caitlin J. Halligan, for appellants.

          Richard P. Dearing, for City respondents.

          John R. Low-Beer, for respondents Avella et al.

          Anisha Dasgupta, for amicus curiae Attorney General of the State of New York.

          Natural Resources Defense Council et al., amici curiae.

          WILSON, J.

         Plaintiffs - a State Senator, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, taxpayers, and users of Flushing Meadows Park, brought this hybrid CPLR article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action in Supreme Court seeking to enjoin the proposed development of parkland in Queens. The proposed development, "Willets West, " involves the construction of a shopping mall and movie theater on Citi Field's parking lot, where Shea Stadium once stood.

         Following New York's loss of both the Dodgers and Giants, Mayor Wagner, determined that New York City should have a National League Team, formed a Baseball Committee, led by William Shea, to work with Major League Baseball and others to obtain an expansion franchise for New York City. Major League Baseball approved the issuance of a franchise to the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, conditioned upon the club's ability to secure the rights to use of a stadium that met League specifications (see Off of Mayor Supp Mem in Support, Bill Jacket, L 1961, ch 729 at 41). In 1961, the state legislature enacted a law providing for the financing and use of a municipal baseball stadium within Flushing Meadows Park, later named Shea Stadium. As the State Department of Commerce noted in a memorandum supporting the bill, "[t]h[e] legislation [wa]s needed in order to get a second major league baseball team in New York City" (Bill Jacket, L 1961, ch 729 at 15). Shea Stadium was home to the New York Mets for nearly 50 years, before it was demolished in 2008 and replaced with a new stadium, Citi Field.

         To the east of the parkland is an area known as Willets Point. As the Appellate Division noted, and as the parties agree, "Willets Point is a 61-acre area that has long been considered to be blighted. Indeed, Willets Point has no sewers, sidewalks or streetlights, is replete with potholed and rutted streets, and is prone to flooding" (131 A.D.3d 77, 78 [1st Dept 2015]). Prior proposals to remediate and develop Willets Point have foundered.

         In response to the City's request for proposals, in 2011, defendant Queens Development Group, LLC (QDG), [1] proposed a two-phase project for developing Willets Point. The current Willets Point Plan calls for construction, in several staged phases, of retail space, a hotel, an outdoor space, a public school, and affordable housing in the Willets Point neighborhood, and the construction of a large-scale retail complex on the parkland of Willets West. QDG included Willets West in the development proposal under the theory that "the creation of a retail and entertainment center at Willets West w[ould] spur a critical perception change of Willets Point, establishing a sense of place and making it a destination where people want to live, work, and visit."

         The phases of the planned development project are as follows: Phase 1A, which was set to begin in 2015, included the construction of Willets West. That phase calls for a retail mall to be built on parkland - which is currently Citi Field's parking lot - and would include over 200 retail stores and restaurants, as well as a movie theater. Phase 1A would also include the installation of sewage systems, roads and ramps, and a hotel in Willets Point. Phase 1B, expected to begin in 2026, would include construction of 2, 490 housing units (35 percent of which would be affordable), a public school, and open outdoor space. Under the agreement between QDG and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, QDG could avoid phase 1B by paying $35 million. The City approved QDG's proposal in May of 2012.

         Thereafter, plaintiffs commenced the instant action against defendants including, among others, the City, various municipal officers and entities, and QDG, alleging that because the Willets West development was located within parkland, the public trust doctrine required legislative authorization, which had not been granted. Supreme Court denied the petition for declaratory and injunctive relief and dismissed the proceeding. The Appellate Division unanimously reversed and granted the petition "to the extent of declaring that construction of Willets West on City parkland without the authorization of the state legislature violates the public trust doctrine, and enjoining any further steps toward its construction" (131 A.D.3d at 87). We granted defendant QDG and related entities leave to appeal (26 N.Y.3d 912');">26 N.Y.3d 912 [2015]) [2]. We now affirm.

         I.

         There is no dispute that the Willets West development is proposed to be constructed entirely on city parkland. The public trust doctrine is ancient and firmly established in our precedent. In Brooklyn Park Commrs. v Armstrong we held that, when a municipality takes land "for the public use as a park[, ]... [it holds] it in trust for that purpose... Receiving the title in trust for an especial public use, [the municipality] could not convey [the land] without the sanction of the legislature" (45 NY 234, 243 [1871]). Likewise, in Matter of Petition of Boston & Albany R.R. Co., we held that parklands held by a village were held "upon a special trust and for public use. The village could not dispose of them or divert them from the purpose to which they were dedicated" (53 NY 574, 576 [1873]). Summarizing the longstanding history of the public trust doctrine in Friends of Van Cortlandt Park v City of New York, we explained that "our courts have time and again reaffirmed the principle that parkland is impressed with a public trust, requiring legislative approval before it can be alienated or used for an extended period for non-park purposes" (95 N.Y.2d 623');">95 N.Y.2d 623, 630 [2001]).

         Only the state legislature has the power to alienate parkland (or other lands held in the public trust) for purposes other than those for which they have been designated. The parties here agree with that proposition. Even though a municipality may own the land dedicated to public use, "the title of the municipal corporation to the public streets [is] held in trust for the public, and the power to regulate those uses [is] vested solely in the legislature" (Potter v Collis, 156 NY 16, 30 [1898]).

         The approval of the legislature in alienating parkland must be "plainly conferred" through the "direct and specific approval of the state legislature" (Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, 95 N.Y.2d at 632 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see Capruso v Village of Kings Point, 23 N.Y.3d 631, 639 [2014]; Williams v Gallatin, 229 NY 248, 253 [1920]). Although we have often articulated that principle in the context of an initial alienation of lands held in the public trust (see e.g. Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, 95 N.Y.2d at 631), the principle also requires that a proposed use of parkland falls within the scope of legislative authorization once granted. For example, in Potter v Collis, we held that, although the legislature's General Railroad Act of 1850 authorized municipalities to assent to the construction of railroads, that legislative authorization was not "sufficient to authorize a city street railroad, " and the City's resolution granting a third party authorization to construct a railroad on public streets was therefore invalid under the public trust doctrine (156 NY at 30). As we held in Matter of City of New York [Piers Old Nos. 8-11], which involved New York City's right to alienate piers and wharves held in the public trust, "[w]hen there is a fair, reasonable and substantial doubt concerning the existence of an alleged power in a municipality, the power should be denied" (228 NY 140, 152, [1920]). We reiterated that rule in Lake George Steam Boat Co. v Blais, in which we said, "legislative sanction must be clear and certain to permit a municipality to lease public property for private purposes" (30 N.Y.2d 48');">30 N.Y.2d 48, 52 [1972]).

         Keeping in mind that the current proposed alienation must plainly fall within the scope of the legislative direction authorizing alienation of the parklands at issue, we now turn to an examination of the statute relied on by defendants for the legislative authorization of Willets West.

         II.

         Defendants contend that the 1961 legislation concerning Shea Stadium, which the City constructed on parkland, constitutes legislative authorization for the Willets West development. That legislation, codified in section 18-118 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York, is titled: "Renting of stadium in Flushing Meadow park; exemption from down payment requirements." Section 18-118 (a) provides, as relevant here:

"a. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, general, special or local, the city, ... is hereby authorized and empowered from time to time to enter into contracts, leases or rental agreements with, or grant licenses, permits, concessions or other authorizations to, any person or persons, upon such terms and conditions, for such consideration, and for such term of duration as may be agreed upon by the city and such person or persons, whereby such person or persons are granted the right, for any purpose or purposes referred to in subdivision b of this section, to use, occupy or carry on activities in, the whole or any part of a stadium, with appurtenant grounds, parking areas and other facilities, to be constructed by the city on certain tracts of land described in subdivision c of this section, being a part of Flushing Meadow park... Prior to or after the expiration or termination of the terms of duration of any contracts, leases, rental agreements, licenses, permits, concessions or other authorizations entered into or granted pursuant to the provisions of this subdivision and subdivision b of this section, the city, in accordance with the requirements and conditions of this subdivision and subdivision b of this section, may from time to time enter into amended, new, additional or further contracts, leases or rental agreements with, and grant new, additional or further licenses, permits, concessions or other authorizations to, the same or any other person or persons for any purpose or purposes referred to in subdivision b of this section."

Section 18-118 (b), in turn, provides:

"b. Any contract, lease, rental agreement, license, permit, concession or other authorization referred to in subdivision a of this section may grant to the person or persons contracting with the city thereunder, the right to use, occupy or carry on activities in, the whole or any part of such stadium, grounds, parking areas and other facilities,
(1) for any purpose or purposes which is of such a nature as to furnish to, or foster or promote among, or provide for the benefit of, the people of the city, recreation, entertainment, amusement, education, enlightenment, cultural development or betterment, and improvement of trade and commerce, including professional, amateur and scholastic sports and athletic events, theatrical, musical or other entertainment presentations, and meetings, assemblages, conventions and exhibitions for any purpose, including meetings, assemblages, conventions and exhibitions held for business or trade purposes, and other events of civic, community and general public interest, and/or
(2) for any business or commercial purpose which aids in the financing of the construction and operation of such stadium, grounds, parking areas and facilities, and any additions, alterations or improvements thereto, or to the equipment thereof, and which does not interfere with the accomplishment of the purposes referred to in paragraph one of this subdivision. It is hereby declared that all of the purposes referred to in this subdivision are for the benefit of the people of the city and for the improvement of their health, welfare, recreation and prosperity, for the promotion of competitive sports for youth and the prevention of juvenile delinquency, and for the improvement of trade and commerce, and are hereby declared to be public purposes."

         When interpreting a statute, "our primary consideration is to discern and give effect to the Legislature's intention" (Matter of Albany Law School v New York State Off. of Mental Retardation & Dev. Disabilities, 19 N.Y.3d 106, 120 [2012]). The text of a statute is the "clearest indicator" of such legislative intent and "courts should construe unambiguous language to give effect to its plain meaning" (DaimlerChrysler Corp. v Spitzer, 7 N.Y.3d 653, 660 [2006]). We have also previously instructed that "[i]t is an accepted rule that all parts of a statute are intended to be given effect and that a statutory construction which renders one part meaningless should be avoided" (Rocovich v Consolidated Edison Co., 78 N.Y.2d 509, 515 [1991]). Furthermore, "a statute... must be construed as a whole and... its various sections must be considered together and with reference to each other" (Matter of New York County Lawyers' Assn. v Bloomberg, 19 N.Y.3d 712, 721 [2012]). Defendants' argument disregards these fundamental rules of statutory interpretation.

         Beginning with the plain language, subdivision (a) of section 18-118 grants the City the right to "enter into contracts, leases or rental agreements, " etc., for persons wishing "to use, occupy or carry on activities in, the whole or any part of a stadium, with appurtenant grounds, parking areas and other facilities." Nothing in that language authorizes the construction of a shopping mall or movie theater; rather, it authorizes the City to enter into agreements permitting others to use the stadium and its appurtenant facilities [3]. The term "appurtenant" means "[a]nnexed to a more important thing, " (Black's Law Dictionary [10th ed. 2014]); or "constituting a legal accompaniment" or "auxiliary, accessory" to something else (Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/appurtenant [accessed May 17, 2017]). Accordingly, the clear implication of the reference to "appurtenant... facilities" is that any such facilities must be related to, part of, belonging to, or serving some purpose for, the stadium itself.

         Defendants point to the last sentence of subdivision (a), authorizing "the city, in accordance with the requirements and conditions of this subdivision and subdivision b of this section, [to]... enter into amended, new, additional or further contracts, leases or rental agreements... for any purpose or purposes referred to in subdivision b of this section, " arguing that subsection (b) specifically authorizes this type of development on the parkland because one of the enumerated uses allowed is the "improvement of trade and commerce" (Administrative Code of the City of New York § 18-118 [b] [1]). That argument is also unpersuasive [4]. The purposes enumerated in the legislation are consistent with typical uses of a park and/or stadium, including "scholastic sports and athletic events, " "theatrical, musical or other entertainment presentations, " and "meetings, assemblages, conventions and exhibitions."

         Subdivision (b), like subdivision (a), is limited to agreements the City might enter into for "the right to use, occupy or carry on activities in, the whole or any part of such stadium, grounds, parking areas and other facilities." Here, "other facilities" in section (b) cannot be divorced from its statutory context: "appurtenant grounds, parking areas and other facilities to be constructed by the city, " to be read as a legislative grant to authorize the private construction of anything deemed by the City to improve trade and commerce. Just as a general statute authorizing municipalities to construct railroads on lands held in the public trust did not authorize New York City to construct a street railroad, the 1961 legislation does not authorize the construction of a retail complex and movie theater.

         Reading "improvement of trade or commerce" as the City suggests -- namely, as authorization for the construction of anything that might improve trade or commerce - would lead to an absurd result. The purposes enumerated in (b) (1) could not be read to exclude any use of the parkland, if understood to mean that the land can be used for any purpose at all related to the "improvement of trade and commerce" or "education, " "amusement, " "cultural development" or "enlightenment" (Administrative Code of the City of New York § 18-118 [b] [1]). For example, defendants' interpretation of the statute would permit the conversion of the parkland into a second Times Square or Wall Street, which is decidedly not evidenced in the statutory language. Moreover, had the legislature truly intended to authorize any use of the parkland, including private for-profit business enterprises, those portions of the statute describing the authorized uses would be rendered superfluous. [5]

         Defendants point to the differences between the 1961 legislation and the 2005 legislation authorizing the development of the new Yankee Stadium, arguing that when the legislature wanted to restrict its authorization to "development of a baseball stadium, " it ...


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