By Daniel E. Estrin
Adjunct Professor of Law, Pace Law School
Supervising Attorney, Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic

A very important public trust decision was issued yesterday by the New York State Court of Appeals in a case brought by the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic’s good friends and allies at the Super Law Group. New York State’s highest court ruled in Capruso v. Village of Kings Point that legislatively unauthorized “non-park” uses of public parkland by municipalities are continuing wrongs that can be challenged at any time by the public or the state, and that statute of limitations and laches defenses may not be asserted by municipalities to block efforts to enjoin such violations of the Public Trust Doctrine.  This ruling applies even where the municipal misuse of parkland has been ongoing for decades.

Why is this decision so significant?  Because decisions by municipalities to misuse public parkland (i.e., to use parkland for purposes other than public recreation without state legislative approval) are often made in secret between municipal agencies, with no notice to the public.  Moreover, even where such misuses of parkland may be deemed evident to park users, as the Court of Appeals noted, it is “unreasonable to expect ordinary citizens who use . . . parks to know whether a particular use by a municipality has received approval by the State Legislature and whether municipal infrastructure located on parkland is intended to serve the park or public areas outside of the park.” This critical ruling will likely cause New York municipalities to think more deliberately before they decide to invest public funds in projects that could much later be found not to constitute park uses.

Our Clinic regularly utilizes the Public Trust Doctrine to protect parkland and other natural resources.  Most recently, we blocked a proposal by the City of New York to use 20 acres of Spring Creek Park in Brooklyn as a solid waste management facility and stopped the City of Poughkeepsie from leasing all of the public dock space in Waryas Park to a for-profit tour boat company.  We salute the efforts of the Petitioners and their counsel in this case to protect nonrenewable natural and public resources, with an extra tip of our hats to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Assistant Solicitor General Bethany Davis Noll for their public interest advocacy and excellent work on the companion appeal.

If any readers are interested in the applicability of the Public Trust Doctrine to municipal parkland under New York law, we strongly recommend the excellent Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland in New York, published by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.