Case 19

Save the Courthouse Committee v. Lynn, 408 F. Supp. 1323 (S.D.N.Y. 1975).

Plaintiffs, property owners and a nonprofit corporation with members who owned property or resided in the area, sought to enjoin demolition of the old Westchester County Courthouse, which was to be demolished as part of an ongoing urban renewal project funded in part through a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) loan and capital grant. The grant contract was executed in 1965 and amended several times between 1965 and 1973. None of the amendments concerned the plan to demolish the courthouse. HUD approved the demolition contract on December 18, 1974, and concluded that no environmental impact statement (EIS) was necessary under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1973, the Secretary of the Interior determined that the courthouse was eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. In January 1975, after the suit had been filed, the courthouse was listed in the Register. Plaintiffs asserted that HUD must comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Executive Order No. 11593, the regulations of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation implementing Section 106 of NHPA, and NEPA. The court granted plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order.

In considering plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, the court initially addressed three threshold issues raised by defendants. First, it concluded that it had jurisdiction to review the agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act and 28 U.S.C. § 1331(a). The considerable interests involved in the preservation of cultural resources put the question beyond the jurisdictional amount in controversy required by 28 U.S.C. § 1331 for the district court to assume jurisdiction. 408 F. Supp. at 1331. [Ed. note: The $10,000 amount in controversy has since been abolished.]

Second, the court found that plaintiffs had standing under the Administrative Procedure Act to bring the lawsuit. Plaintiffs had alleged sufficient injury-in-fact both by claiming that demolition would deprive them of the aesthetic benefits they derived from the historic courthouse and because they were residents of and property owners in the area. Id. at 1332. Plaintiffs' interest‹to protect the courthouse‹was within the zone of interests protected by NHPA and NEPA. Id. at 1333.

Third, the court rejected defendants' laches claim. Because the courthouse still stood, the public interest in preserving historic structures could still be safeguarded, and the purposes of NHPA and NEPA could still be fulfilled, the delay in bringing the suit was not unreasonable or inexcusable. Id. at 1333. The court declined to adopt as a date for measuring laches either the date on which demolition of the courthouse was first discussed or the date on which the loan and capital grant contract was executed. Rather, laches would begin to run from the time it became reasonably clear to plaintiffs that other efforts to achieve their ends would be fruitless. Id. at 1333-34.

Having disposed of these preliminary questions, the court addressed the applicability of NHPA. Because the courthouse was not listed in the National Register until 1975, the court found that HUD had no responsibilities under NHPA prior to that time. Id. at 1335. All of the amendments to the loan and capital grant contract occurred prior to 1975, and none concerned a change with respect to the proposed demolition of the courthouse. HUD had made the overall financial commitment and could not unilaterally reassess its approval of the project. The court found that there were no further approvals forthcoming that would trigger NHPA's requirement for review "prior to approval." From this, the court concluded that it was "highly unlikely" that HUD need comply with Section 106 of NHPA. Id. at 1336.

Next, the court held that Executive Order No. 11593 had no bearing on the facts of the case because the courthouse was not within HUD's jurisdiction and control and was not federally owned. Id. at 1336-37. However, the court held that HUD was bound by the Council's regulations because HUD had adopted them as part of its own internal procedures. Id. at 1338. Relying on the Council's definitions of "undertaking" and "decision," the court found that, unlike Section 106, the Council's regulations are not linked to the timing of the approval of Federal expenditures but apply at any time when changes can still be effected in the undertaking to circumvent an adverse impact. The court concluded that HUD still had opportunity under the grant contract to effect changes in the project. Id. at 1339.

Finally, for the same reasons, the court found that NEPA was applicable and that HUD's determination that no environmental impact statement was necessary was defective. Id. at 1340 41. The EIS must address currently feasible alternatives to demolition. Id. at 1342.

Finding that plaintiffs would suffer irreparable injury should the proposed demolition go forward, which outweighed the harm to defendants that would result from a preliminary injunction, the court granted injunctive relief. Id. at 1343-44. The local agency was also enjoined on the ground that it was a partner to HUD. Id. at 1344.

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