Town of Lysander,
Paul Hafner, Jr. et al.,
2001 NY Int. 112
Defendants own and operate a commercial farm in the
Town of Lysander, in an "agricultural district" created pursuant
to Agriculture and Markets Law § 303. This case arises from
defendants' attempt in 1999 to install several single-wide mobile
homes for housing migrant workers on the farm. The mobile homes
do not comply with a Town zoning ordinance that "all one-story
single family dwellings" have a minimum living area of 1,100
The central issue before us is whether the zoning ordinance, as applied to defendants' installation of mobile homes to house migrant farm workers, is superseded by Agriculture and Markets Law § 305-a(1)(a). That statute provides:
"1. Policy of local governments. a. Local governments, when exercising their powers to enact and administer comprehensive plans and local laws, ordinances, rules or regulations, shall exercise these powers in such manner as may realize the policy and goals set forth in this article, and shall not unreasonably restrict or regulate farm operations within agricultural districts in contravention of the purposes of this article unless it can be shown that the public health or safety is threatened" (emphasis supplied).
The statute defines "[f]arm operation[s]" as "the land and on-farm buildings, equipment and practices which contribute to the production, preparation and marketing of crops, livestock and livestock products as a commercial enterprise" (Agriculture and Markets Law § 301).
In 1998, the Town initially granted defendants a
temporary building permit for two mobile homes, but refused to
extend the permit in 1999 and disapproved defendants' permit
application to site additional mobile homes on the farm, relying
solely on Town Zoning Code § 139-56(A). The Town then commenced
this action for an injunction precluding defendants from using the
mobile homes to house migrant workers and directing removal of the
Defendants alleged, as an affirmative defense, that the zoning ordinance unreasonably restricted farm operations within the meaning of Agriculture and Markets Law § 305-a(1)(a) and that the Town failed to show that its restriction on mobile homes was necessary to protect the public health or safety. They also sought, in a counterclaim, an order directing the Town to issue building permits and certificates of occupancy for the mobile homes. Thereafter, defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. In support of their motion, they submitted a letter addressed to the Town from the Department of Agriculture and Markets, which stated that the "Department has consistently viewed mobile homes for farmworker residences as protected 'on-farm buildings'" and that it viewed application of the Town's zoning code in defendants' case as an unreasonable restriction on farm operations.
Supreme Court denied defendants' motion for summary
judgment and granted summary judgment to the Town, permanently
enjoining defendants from using mobile homes without building
permits and certificates of occupancy. The court reasoned that
Agriculture and Markets Law § 305-a(1)(a) did not "create an
exemption from local zoning authorities or ordinances for all
'farm operations'" and, specifically, that the statute did not
provide any protection to "farm residential buildings," including
mobile homes. The Appellate Division affirmed for "reasons
The Legislature enacted Article 25-AA of the Agriculture and Markets Law in 1971 for the stated purposes of protecting, conserving and encouraging "the development and improvement of [this State's] agricultural lands" (L 1971, ch 479, § 1). At that time and again in 1987 (L 1987, ch 774, § 1), the Legislature specifically found that "many of the agricultural lands in New York state are in jeopardy of being lost for any agricultural purposes" due to local land use regulations inhibiting farming, as well as various other deleterious side effects resulting from the extension of nonagricultural development into farm areas (Agriculture and Markets Law § 300).
To foster the socio-economic vitality of agriculture in
New York, the Legislature gave county legislative bodies the
power to create "agricultural districts" (see, id., § 303).
Lands falling within those "agricultural districts" may be
entitled to various statutory protections and benefits. As is
relevant here, Agriculture and Markets Law § 305-a(1)(a)
mandates that, when exercising their powers to regulate land use
activities, local governments must do so in a manner consistent
with the policy objectives of Article 25-AA. Thus, the statute
directs that local governments "shall not unreasonably restrict
or regulate farm operations within agricultural districts in
contravention of the purposes of this article unless it can be
shown that the public health or safety is threatened" (id., §
In this case, as previously noted, the Commissioner of
Agriculture and Markets, who appears
As urged by defendants and the Commissioner, the
literal language of the definition does not exclude "farm
residential buildings" from the protective reach of the statute.
To the contrary, Agriculture & Markets Law § 301(11) makes
The Commissioner also concluded that "the Town of Lysander's Zoning Code, insofar as it prohibits the siting of mobile homes having an area of less than 1,100 square feet for farm labor housing on farm operations * * * unreasonably restricts such farm operations, including Paul Hafner Farms." According to the Commissioner,
"Frequently, farmers rely on mobile home housing for their farm laborers to accommodate the long
work day, seasonal housing needs and to address the real shortage of rental housing in rural areas. Local government prohibitions or restrictions on the use of mobile homes can significantly impair the viability of farm operations."
The Commissioner's view in this regard is entitled to deference. Where, as here, the "interpretation of a statute or its application involves knowledge and understanding of underlying operational practices or entails an evaluation of factual data and inferences to be drawn therefrom, the courts regularly defer to the governmental agency charged with the responsibility for administration of the statute" (Kurcsics v Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., , 49 NY2d 451, 459 [emphasis supplied]; see also, Jennings v New York State Off. of Mental Health, , 90 NY2d 227, 239).
Finally, the Town failed to make any evidentiary showing that the statutory exception to the ban on unreasonable regulations of farm operations applied -- i.e., that an absolute ban on single-wide mobile homes was needed because "the public health or safety [was] threatened" (Agriculture and Markets Law § 305-a[a]). Therefore, we agree with defendants and the Commissioner that defendants were entitled to summary judgment dismissing the Town's complaint. The Town's remaining arguments are without merit.
We note that, as a result of our reversal, defendants'
counterclaim for an order directing the Town to issue building
permits and certificates of occupancy -- which had been rendered
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, with costs, defendants' motion for summary judgment granted and the case remitted to Supreme Court for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion.