inwood rally

Sadef Kully

Community groups rallied outside civil court in August, following oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the city’s rezoning of Inwood.

The city’s Law Department says it is ready to deliver its case to a state appeals court for restoring the Inwood rezoning, which was annulled by a lower court last year. It’s just not sure exactly when it will be able to do so. 

Oral argument is scheduled for the second week of the Appellate Court’s First Department’s “May term” which begins April 14th. “However, the court has yet to release the May term schedule for any of its pending appeals,” the department told City Limits by email.

In its written appeal, which it filed in February, the city says the Supreme Court decision to repeal the Inwood rezoning was in error and asked the Appellate Court’s First Department to reverse the decision and dismiss the original petition.

“[The Supreme Court] imposed an incorrect understanding of environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) that, if adopted by this court, would allow objectors to stifle and delay public projects in New York City, essentially at will,” the appeal read. “On the basis of that error, the court annulled City Council resolutions approving a rezoning proposal for the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood that is designed to bring that community new affordable housing, publicly accessible open space along the waterfront, a new public library, and other benefits.”

The department argued that the lower court broke precedent by engaging in a sweeping review of an agency’s actions in conducting an environmental review. 

The city’s appeal argued that the city’s agencies make many judgements while conducting any such review and “allowing objectors to force do-overs because public commenters might have made different judgments would provide a blueprint for obstructing most, if not all, planning efforts and public projects.”

“Because the city’s challenged judgments about the scope of the environmental review were rationally supported, there was no basis to hold the review to be inadequate,” the appeal argued.

Additionally, it said the Supreme Court erred in a separate ruling which said the City Council vote was invalid because the vote occurred before the issuance of a statement of findings by the lead agency in the environmental review under State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The appeal says there is no such timing rule statute in the SEQRA laws. 

The appeal also said the Supreme Court was under the “mistaken impression” the city agency’s statement of findings contained new substantive information about the project’s environmental impacts that the City Council needed to have taken into account. The appeal said the document contained no such information.

The original lawsuit filed in 2019 against the city by Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale – a coalition of organizations, residents and business owners impacted by the rezoning and several individual Inwood residents–contended the city’s environmental review process failed to examine how the rezoning would impact the socio-economic demographics of the Inwood community, including race, income and language (you can read more on the original lawsuit coverage here).

Last year in December, a New York Supreme Civil Court judge annulled the city’s 2018 Inwood rezoning. 

During a city-initiated rezoning or project, the city must do an environmental review to understand and assess the impact a proposed project may have in the neighborhood. The review follows a Technical Manual that is developed by the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination, which is charged with assisting city agencies in carrying out the reviews in accordance with state and federal law. The City Environmental Quality Review or CEQR is mandated by the State Environmental Quality Review Act. 

According to the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination, CEQR is a disclosure process and not an approval process. It helps support decisions made by agencies such as approvals of rezoning or variance applications, funding, or issuance of discretionary permits.

The attorney who represents the Inwood group in the original lawsuit says the appeal is another feeble attempt by the city to undermine the Inwood community’s demands. 

“I think the issue is whether that means that those people in exercising that discretion are held to a standard of reasonableness or not, or are they simply able to hide and say, ‘Well, the manual gives us a lot of discretion. Therefore we decided not to do it. That’s the end of the story,’ which is sort of their argument,” says Michael Sussman, the attorney representing the Inwood coalition. 

Sussman said he filed his response last month. Typically, an appeals case will hear three briefs by the parties: two by the appellants (in this case, the city) and one by the respondents, which in this case is Sussman and his clients. Then the court schedules oral arguments for both parties and renders its decision. 

Sussman’s clients, Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale – a coalition of organizations, residents and business owners impacted by the rezoning and several individual Inwood residents–said the city’s appeal was disservice to their community. As the city became the Coronavirus epicenter of the world, the inequities they believe the rezoning would exacerbate have become more evident. 

In an emailed statement to City Limits, the group wrote: “We continue to fight the city’s rezoning of Inwood because we believe in the idea of one city, where immigrants, working class people, and Asian, Black, and Latinx people can thrive. We cannot accept city officials telling us that they are not required to listen to or address the concerns we raised about the impact of the rezoning. It is time we stopped making choices that favor the interests of the most privileged in our city, while millions of rent-burdened New Yorkers struggle to get by.” The group notes that several City Council members are working to require a “racial impact study” as part of the land-use process, indicating that the concerns they have raised in Inwood have broader resonance.

Inwood is not alone. In the past year, community groups across the city have taken their fight against development and rezonings to the court or the City Council, including community groups fighting a large-scale development in Two Bridges and others pushing for a fair and equitable Bushwick rezoning. Organizers for both groups have raised concerns over the city’s method for environmental review. 

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