Skip navigation

Union College v. Schenectady City Council, 91 N.Y.2d 161 (Dec. 18, 1997).





In 1978, the City of Schenectady ("the City") adopted an ordinance establishing an historic district incorporating an area known as the General Electric Realty Plot. The City adopted a new code provision in 1984, City Code § 264-8, which foreclosed all nonresidential users except public utilities from applying for special use permits in the historic district. Property owners could obtain a variance only if they could show "practical difficulties" or "unnecessary hardships." Alternatively, a private party could seek an amendment to City Code § 264-8 itself.

Union College, in November 1992, proposed that the City Code be amended to include certain nonresidential educational uses as a special permit use within the district. In January 1995, Union College dropped the attempt to amend the City Code and commenced an action for declaratory judgment. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. The Supreme Court granted Union College's motion and denied the cross-motion. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed.



Whether a municipality may enact an historic district ordinance that precludes a balancing of interests when an educational institution applies for special use permits.


No, a municipal law denying educational institutions the opportunity to apply for special use permits in an historic district is unconstitutional.


Cases Cited by the Court

Other Sources Cited by the Court



State of the Law Before Union College

Blanket exclusions of educational institutions from residential zones are improper. Cornell University v. Bagnardi, 68 N.Y.2d 583 (N.Y. 1986). Noting the presumed beneficial effect of schools and churches, the court held that the expansion plans of such institutions "require a more balanced approach than total exclusion." Id. at 596. The court explained that educational institutions are in no way exempt from zoning ordinances. Id. at 594. Rather, "the presumed beneficial effect may be rebutted with evidence of a significant impact on traffic congestion, property values, municipal services and the like." Id. at 595. Special permits with restrictive conditions may be required by zoning boards.

Effect of Union College on Current Law

Union College requires local zoning ordinances to provide case by case balancing where educational institutions are involved. Union College at para. 10. The municipality must weigh the educational uses against the interest in historic preservation, as well as other legitimate, competing interests. Id. Failure to perform a balancing test violates the state's delegation to municipalities of police power to promote public health, safety, morals or general welfare. Union College at para. 6. A municipality cannot decide as a matter of law that the public interest in historic preservation of a residential neighborhood overrides competing educational interests. Union College at para. 9.

It is insufficient that Schenectady would allow Union College to apply for a variance--which requires showing of practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships--or apply for an amendment to the City Code. Neither of these options balance educational use against the public interest in historical preservation. Union College at para. 13. Given that the ordinance fails to provide for a balancing of public welfare interests, it is not substantially related to the delegated police power and is thus unconstitutional. Union College at para. 15.

Unanswered Questions

Although the court resolves the necessity of case by case balancing of educational interests, the court does not address other interests that were excluded when the City Code was amended, such as religious, philanthropic and charitable institutions. These interests also serve a role in promoting general public welfare. Would a revised City Code that did not allow a case by case balancing for these possible uses also be struck down as unconstitutional?

In the present case, the City Code 264-8 was facially invalid. The court does not lay out the relative weights to be given to the competing interests when evaluating the overall impact on public welfare of a proposed educational use. Under what circumstances would a facially valid ordinance be deemed unconstitutional as applied?

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

Generally, municipal zoning ordinances that affect educational institutions require an actual balancing of the interest in protecting the residential area versus the educational institution's intended use. In contrast, an ordinance in Alaska was found constitutional even though the ordinance flatly denied a church the right to build a parochial school in a residential district. Seward Chapel, Inc. v. City of Seward, 655 P.2d 1293 (Alaska 1982). The court said there was a constitutional difference between an outright ban on parochial schools from any area, and a zoning scheme which requires that such schools, like a variety of other land uses, be located in area in which their impact on surrounding areas is lessened. This is contrary to the decision in Union College where the court said that an ordinance could not facially deny an educational institution the opportunity to apply for a special permit. It seems that in Alaska a municipality can determine as a matter of law that the public interest in preserving a residential neighborhood overrides competing educational interests.

In contrast, Florida requires a balancing of public interests when an educational institution attempts to expand its administrative offices in a residentially-zoned neighborhood. DeSisto College, Inc. v. Town of Howey-In-The-Hills, 706 F. Supp. 1479 (M.D. Fla. 1989) (balancing is required when an educational institution seeks to purchase a building for administrative offices in a residential area). In Massachusetts, the challenger of the ordinance bears the burden of proving that the ordinance is unreasonable. The ordinance is proven unreasonable by establishing excessive cost of compliance or by demonstrating that compliance would substantially diminish or detract from usefulness without appreciably advancing the municipality's legitimate concerns. Trustees of Tufts College v. Medford, 616 N.E.2d 433 (Mass. 1993).

Similar to educational institutions, other public welfare functions cannot be prevented from purchasing and using land or buildings in residential areas for other than residential uses without a balancing of interests. In Sisters of Bon Secours Hosp. v. City of Grosse Pointe, 154 N.W.2d 644 (Mich. Ct. App. 1967), the court found a zoning ordinance prohibiting hospitals in a particular residential area was without substantial relation to health, safety, morals, or welfare of the community. However, the provisions of the ordinance with respect to off-street parking and the height of buildings were valid. As was expressed in Union College, public welfare functions must be balanced against the interests associated with preserving a residential area on a case-by-case basis.

Prepared By: