Upstate NY Municipality Takes Fair Housing Discrimination Hit Over Dubious Denial Of Re-Zoning Application From Outfit Providing Services For People w/ Mental Illnesses; Strong Public Opposition Reflecting "Clearly Stereotypical Ideas About Mentally Ill" Sinks City's Position
- A federal judge  ordered the City Council to approve Step by Step Inc.’s application to rezone the former Lincoln Elementary School on Knox Street from single-family residential to that of a planned development district so that the nonprofit organization can provide services for people with mental illnesses.
Step by Step had sued the city in U.S. District Court, Utica, in July 2015, alleging that the city intentionally discriminated against its patients in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by denying its application to rezone 1515 Knox St.
In a 35-page ruling , Judge David N. Hurd wrote that the City Council did not demonstrate that the denial of the application was not influenced by the community’s opposition to the housing project, opposition that included multiple statements made at a public meeting that “reveal a number of clearly stereotypical ideas about the mentally ill; indeed, exactly the kind of unfair bias at which the FHA and ADA are aimed at preventing.”
“While obtaining public comment on a matter of public concern is commendable, the City Council may not cede its decision-making authority to the public, especially when a significant portion of public opposition was based on improper biases towards SBS’s clients,” Judge Hurd wrote.
The judge wrote, however, that it is unknown what effect public opposition played in the council’s decision to deny the application “because the City Council failed to articulate any of their reasons for denying SBS’s application.” He wrote that when the matter was put up for a vote at a May 28, 2015, meeting, no council member stated on the record their reason for voting against Step by Step’s application.
“By completely failing to describe the reasoning and logic behind the denial of SBS’s application, the City Council has effectively created a black box where any justifications are a mystery,” the judge wrote. “While at least a significant portion of the information placed into that box consisted of community opposition based upon impermissible discrimination, the City has asked for a ruling that the denial was free of any improper prejudices. This cannot be done!”
While Judge Hurd’s order requires the city to approve Step by Step’s application to establish a planned development district at the site, the approval does not permit an approved use for Step by Step to operate a mental health facility immediately. The organization will still be required, under City Code, to submit a final development plan to the Planning Board for site plan review before a building permit will be issued.
The judge noted that, while the city may still require further submissions, the review of such must be consistent with criteria delineated in City Code, “absent of any improper prejudices, and without additional conditions, unreasonable or overly stringent interpretations of provisions of the zoning regulations, or other undue delay.”
For the court ruling, see Step By Step, Inc. v. City Of Ogdensburg, No. 7:15-CV-925 (N.D.N.Y. April 5, 2016).