The Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council’s programs were deemed “vital human services” by a state appeals court this week, meaning the not-for-profit organization can continue to operate in the former Ballston Spa National Bank.
For months, the village has fought to block the social services agency’s move from the outskirts of Saratoga Springs to Bath Street in Ballston Spa’s downtown on the grounds that it didn’t belong in an area zoned for retail use. But justices with the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court disagreed with this stance, ruling the agency’s mission includes numerous services that fit the meaning of vital services, meaning it adheres to the village’s zoning code.
“Indeed, the health and safety-related, necessary and vital nature of the services and programs that [EOC] offers has never been controverted,” stated Justice Edward Spain in the unanimous decision released Thursday. “Consequently, we agree with Supreme Court that [the village’s] interpretation of the zoning provision as not allowing [EOC’s] proposed uses was irrational and unreasonable, and its determination was properly annulled.”
EOC started the process of relocating to the village last spring, after determining its offices on New Street in the neighboring city no longer provided enough space. The agency provides a variety of government-supported services to the poor, including housing weatherization, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, community support programs and the Head Start preschool program.
Village officials and many local business owners contended the council shouldn’t be on Bath Street because all buildings in the downtown area — including the former bank offices — should be limited to retail services on their first floors. The village Zoning Board of Appeals denied a variance application in July 2012, prompting EOC to take the case to state Supreme Court in Saratoga County.
The agency argued it’s mission qualified it for an exemption allowed in village zoning law for “vital human services.” Ballston Spa National Bank supported the agency, claiming its former building — a tavern and rooming house that was converted into offices — isn’t laid out for retail use.
EOC won a decision in Supreme Court, which was then appealed by the village. The appeals court agreed the term “vital human services” seemed vague, but decided to err on the side of the agency.
“Here, to the extent that ‘[v]ital human services,’ which include ‘any health related services” and ‘other necessary human services,’ is a somewhat ambiguous phrase, it will be construed in [EOC]’s favor,” Spain wrote in the five-page decision. “A statute such as a zoning ordinance must be ‘construed as a whole, reading all of its parts together,’ all of which should be harmonized to ascertain legislative intent, and it should be given its plain meaning, avoiding a construction that renders superfluous any language in the ordinance.”