Petitioners are developers of two-family residences in a zoning district allowing a "floor area ratio" ("FAR") of 0.50 for such buildings. A FAR of 0.50 means that the aggregate floor area of any building may not exceed 50% of the area of the building's property. One residence planned by petitioners is challenged because its FAR does not include the floor area of the ground floor of a tri-level home. The ground floor qualifies as a cellar as defined by New York City's Zoning Resolution ("Zoning Resolution"). Zoning Resolution § 12-10 excludes cellars from the calculation of FARs and defines "floor area" to include any "floor space used for dwelling purposes, no matter where located within a building, when not specifically excluded." The New York City Department of Buildings ("DOB") claimed that petitioners' FAR calculations were incorrect because their calculations excluded the ground floor space that was to be used for dwelling purposes, despite its qualification as a cellar. The DOB argued that the cellar exclusion from FAR applied to floor space which was genuinely nonhabitable, such as space allocated for furnaces or utility rooms. The DOB revoked petitioners' building permit and denied any reconsideration. Petitioners subsequently appealed to the Board of Standards and Appeals ("BSA") which denied the appeal and affirmed the DOB's ruling. Petitioners filed an Article 78 proceeding to annul the BSA's decision. The Supreme Court held that the cellar space which would be used for dwelling purposes should be included in the FAR calculation. The Appellate Division affirmed. Petitioners appeal.
Whether appropriate interpretation of § 12-10 of New York City's Zoning Resolution permits the City to include habitable cellar space in the calculation of FAR.
No. The plain meaning of the Zoning Resolution is that FAR calculations do not include cellar space regardless of the intent of the use or habitability of the space.
Prior to Raritan, the Court of Appeals had applied the "plain meaning" doctrine to issues of statutory interpretation. "The interpretation of the meaning of statutes, as applied to justiciable controversies, is exclusively a judicial function." New York State Bankers Ass'n v. Albright, 38 N.Y.2d 430, 437 (N.Y. 1975) (dictum) (stating that the words of the legislature, while persuasive evidence, are never absolutely certain in meaning). In interpreting statutes, New York adheres to the "plain meaning" rule. However, the words of a statute will not be used to arrive at an unreasonable or absurd result. See Williams v. Williams, 23 N.Y.2d 592, 599 (N.Y. 1969) (dictum) (justifying an exception to the plain meaning rule if reason and statutory purpose show the statute was not meant to include the case at hand). If reason and statutory purpose prove otherwise, the courts must examine the purpose of the statute and determine the intention of the legislature rather than apply the plain meaning doctrine. Id. at 598.
The court states that the cellar exclusion of Zoning Resolution § 12-10 applies to all cellar space regardless of the use of the space. When calculating FARs, one must look to the plain meaning of the Zoning Resolution. The court finds that the Zoning Resolution both clearly defines cellars and excludes them in unqualified language from FAR calculations. Raritan at Majority para. 22.
The court maintains that it applies the established standard of review for agency determinations in this case. "When interpretation [of a statute] is contrary to the plain meaning of the statutory language, we have typically declined to enforce an agency's conflicting application thereof." Raritan at Majority para. 1. The court finds that the "statutory language could not be clearer." Id. at Majority para. 11.
The court also rejects the respondent's argument that the statute permits the inclusion of cellar space used for residential purposes. The court focuses on the legislative intent of the 1961 amendments to the Zoning Resolution to further support its determination of the plain meaning of the statute. It notes that under the 1961 amendments "cellar space was excluded from floor area without qualification. There is no evidence that the changed meaning was accidental or superfluous." Id. at Majority para. 13.
In characterizing its decision as being consistent with three well-established principles of law, the court 1) applies the plain meaning rule in determining statutory construction appeals (Id. at Majority para. 24); 2) relies on precedent which states that "no rule of construction gives the court discretion to declare the intent of the law when the words are unequivocal" (Id. at Majority para. 25 (citing Bender v. Jamaica Hosp., 40 N.Y.2d 560, 562 (N.Y. 1976) (emphasis added))); and 3) declares the basic rule that courts may not legislate. Unintended consequences are best left to the legislature to resolve (Id.)
The dissent states the issue in this case as whether space actually used as living quarters, even if partially below grade, can be excluded from FAR calculations. Raritan at Dissent para. 32. It concludes that it should not be excluded. The dissent argues that even absent facial ambiguity, the court should follow the purpose rather than the literal words of a statute. Id. at Dissent para. 29 (citing New York State Bankers Ass'n., 38 N.Y.2d at 430, 437).
Furthermore, the dissent rejects the application of the plain meaning doctrine by citing other Court of Appeals decisions to support its view that the "overarching duty of the courts in statutory interpretation is always to ascertain the legislative intent through the examination of all legislative sources." Id. at Dissent para. 28 (citing People v. Ryan, 274 N.Y. 149, 152 (N.Y. 1937) (legislative intent acting as the great and controlling principle.)). Conceding that courts can apply the plain meaning rule under clear cases, the dissent argues the rule does not apply in this case. Id. at Dissent para. 31. According to the dissent, this statute "present[s] a paradigm of ... 'structural ambiguity [in which ] interpretive difficulties arise not from indeterminacy as to the meaning of individual words but from ambiguity as to the relationship of the words in a sentence structure.'" Id. at Dissent para. 37 (quoting Plain Meaning and Hard Cases, 103 Yale L.J. at 1570) (emphasis in original)). This ambiguity is sufficient for the dissent to defer to the BSA's interpretation, which is "the agency [that the Court of Appeals] ha[s] recognized as having responsibility for implementing the statutory purposes of New York City Zoning Resolution § 12-10." Id.
The dissent explains that the majority's plain meaning interpretation produces unreasonable results, "plainly at variance with the policy of the legislation as a whole." Id. at Dissent para. 29. The dissent concludes that inclusion of cellar dwelling space in FAR calculations represents a more sound reading of the "dwelling purpose" defined in subdivision (g) of § 12-10. Id. at Dissent para. 38. It presents three major arguments to support this conclusion.
First, the dissent contends that statutory amendments were only intended to exclude cellar space for specific limited uses from FAR calculations, not in the instance of entire living units. Id. at Dissent paras. 41-42. Secondly, the dissent argues that modifications in the definition of cellar space were not intended to allow subsurface living quarters to be exempt, but rather to correct the unintended effect of requiring needless excavation of lots. Id. at Dissent paras. 44-47. Lastly, the dissent asserts that the general purpose of FAR regulations and Zoning Resolution § 12-10 is to help "control population density with its resultant adverse impact on quality of life and overtaxing of governmental services" Id. at Dissent para. 46. It concurs with the respondent's interpretation of the Zoning Resolution. Including subsurface living quarters in FAR calculations would "limit the aggregate habitable space occupied by people within the zoning district, i.e., its population density." Id. at Dissent para. 47.
The majority in Raritan does not clarify when the interpretation of a statute is unreasonable enough that it conflicts with the plain meaning doctrine. While in this case the majority found the cellar exclusion was a clear and reasonable interpretation of the statute, they offer no guidance on the limitations of their reasoning. As the dissent emphasizes, other Court of Appeals decisions such as New York State Bankers Ass'n, interpret statutes whose plain meaning would be at "variance with the policy of the legislation as a whole" by considering the statute's intent rather than following the literal words. Id. at 437. The court does not delineate how to interpret a given statute in light of conflict between a legislative policy and its plain meaning.
The tension between the majority and the dissent centers on differences as to how courts should determine when a statute is ambiguous. The majority appears to subscribe to a textualist interpretation, echoing the "new textualism" school of interpretation. See Eskridge, The New Textualism, 37 UCLA L. Rev. 621 (1990). The dissent, on the other hand, appears to side with the critics of this school. See, e.g., Cunningham et. al., Plain Meaning and Hard Cases, 103 Yale L.J. 1561 (1994). However, the majority does not elaborate upon why the textual approach governs statutory interpretation in New York state.
Conceivably the majority's approach is this case is influenced by another interpretative factor. Zoning regulations are by definition limitations on a property owner's rights. As such, they are in derogation of the common law and must be strictly construed, limiting their effect on the property owner. Allen v. Adami, 39 N.Y.2d 275, 277 (N.Y. 1976). In fact, any ambiguity in the language used in such regulations must be resolved in favor of the property owner. See Turiano v. Gilchrist, 190 N.Y.S.2d 754, 756 (App. Div. 1959). The provisions of zoning laws "which curtail and limit uses of real property" may not be extended by implication. 440 East 102nd St. Corp. v. Murdock, 285 N.Y. 298, 304 (N.Y. 1941). If this was, indeed, a factor in Raritan one might find the "plain meaning" of a zoning provision preventing the property owner's proposed use less binding.
In the context of zoning and planning statutes and regulations, the process of construction "is often cut short by a judicial declaration that no interpretation is necessary because the meaning is plain. In many instances, this conclusion is based upon the application of the widely recognized [plain meaning doctrine]." 83 Am. Jur. 2d Zoning and Planning § 702 at 605 (1992) (footnotes omitted). The plain meaning doctrine provides courts with a basis for resolving disputes as to the correct interpretation of a given statute with limited consideration of the legislative intent and limited reference to the statute's underlying purpose. The extent to which courts rely on the plain meaning doctrine, and the position given the doctrine in relation to other methods of statutory construction, varies considerably from state to state.
In most jurisdictions, courts appear to subscribe to the plain meaning doctrine in the context of zoning and planning statutes. For example, courts in California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin all have reported cases in which the construction of zoning laws was limited by the application of the plain meaning doctrine. See 83 Am. Jur. 2d § 702, supra, at 605 n.96 and accompanying text. In some of these cases, the plain meaning doctrine is given primacy over other rules of statutory construction, as the majority in Raritan seems to have done in the instant case. For example, in Jones v. Bd. of Adjustment, 204 P.2d 560 (Colo. 1949), the Colorado Supreme Court indicated that "[w]here the language used is plain, its meaning clear, and no absurdity is involved, Constitution, statute, or contract must be declared and enforced as written[; t]here is nothing to interpret." Id. at 565. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Nebraska, in Dewey v. Montesorri Educational Ctr, Inc., 178 N.W.2d 792 (Neb. 1970), relied on the plain meaning doctrine to resolve a zoning ordinance dispute stating "[w]here the provisions of a zoning ordinance as to the uses of the property which are permitted are expressed in common words without enlargement, restriction, or definition, they are to be interpreted according to their accepted meaning." Id. at 792. In these cases, like the majority opinion in Raritan, the courts' investigations into the legislative history or overarching purpose behind the provisions in question was limited, and instead the courts relied exclusively, or at least primarily, on the "plain meaning" doctrine to resolve disputes arising from differing interpretations of zoning provisions.
In contrast, other state courts employ a more purposive method of interpretation in the context of zoning and planning laws. Although these state courts also invoke the plain meaning doctrine, they use it in conjunction with other rules of statutory construction rather then in lieu of such rules. In Gulfport v. Daniels, 97 So.2d 218 (Miss. 1957), the Georgia Supreme Court stated that "[z]oning ordinances should be given a fair and reasonable construction, in the light of their terminology, the objects sought to be obtained, the natural import of the words used in common and accepted usage, the setting in which they are employed, and the general structure of the zoning ordinance as a whole." Id. at 220 (emphasis added). In a recent Maryland decision, Baltimore County v. Wesley Chapel Beaumount Assoc., 678 A.2d 100 (Md. App. 1996), the court declined to interpret the disputed provision without reference to the purpose of the statute in question. The court started with the presumption that the "fundamental goal of statutory construction is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature." Id. at 107. The court then acknowledged that "the primary source for determining legislative intent is the language of the statute." Id. However, instead of "reading the provision in isolation," the court noted that it "must consider the statutory scheme as a whole, as well as the purpose of the statute." Id. at 108. Even in this case, the court acknowledged that "when there is a specific statutory provision on point, [the] court has no choice but to apply the specific provision, rather than a general one." Id.