ALBANY — A mid-level appeals court has reversed a lower court and found the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has the authority to limit the town of Ballston in allowing public water connections in agricultural areas.
The five-member Appellate Division court in Albany sided with state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball, and reversed a state Supreme Court judge's 2018 decision dismissing his lawsuit against a town water extension.
The issue between the town and the Ag & Markets arose in 2016, when a property owner asked the town to extend a water line that runs through part of the town's state-approved Agriculture District to a 12-lot residential development on Goode Street. In 2017, the state agency sued, seeking a permanent injunction barring the water connection.
At issue was a resolution the Ballston Town Board approved in 2004, when the water line was built through agricultural lands. The resolution stated that new water connections for non-agricultural purposes would not be allowed, in an effort to limit loss of farmland to other uses.
Ag & Markets said it relied on that resolution in approving the water line, and that the resolution remains binding.
The state's lawsuit contended allowing water connections for the Goode Street subdivision violated that resolution and state Agriculture and Markets Law.
Ball was "within his rights to order the town to comply with the 2004 resolution following an investigation," the court wrote, and when the town didn't comply, "commence the present enforcement litigation."
State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Buchanan had ruled in April 2018 that Ball lacked the authority to enforce the 2004 town resolution.
In court, Ag & Markets said it relied on the 2004 resolution's limitations on non-agricultural water connections in determining that the water line would not "have an unreasonably adverse effect on the continuing viability of a farm enterprise or enterprises within the district."
The appellate court found that local governments have broad authority over local policy decisions, "but that autonomy does not extend to actions that conflict with the State Constitution or any general law."
The appeals court also found, however, that Buchanan was correct in allowing three land developers, Thomas J. Benuscak, Katz Construction and Excavation and The Spinney Group, to intervene in the lawsuit on the grounds that they had property interests at stake if residential water connections were blocked.
Town officials have maintained in public statements throughout the litigation that they have a strong desire to preserve agriculture in Ballston, where there is intense residential growth pressure.
Town Supervisor Tim Szczepaniak said the town respects the decision, but the Town Board "will evaluate various options."
The decision could be appealed to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, but the unanimous nature of the Appellate Division decision makes it less likely the Court of Appeals would take the case.
"The Town Board did the right thing by trying to ensure town residents building residential homes would be able to tie into a water main going right by their home," Szczepaniak said. "This decision simply binds landowners. The Supreme Court ruled in the town's favor. Unfortunately the Appellate court decided that the resolution dating back to 2004 was still valid."
The 12-lot subdivision was never built because of the questions about the water connection. "The thing I feel bad about is now, even it's a single-family house, they can't connect, even though the line runs right by them," Szczepaniak said.
The town water line was built through the agricultural lands on Goode Street in 2004 because the town wanted to have public water at the town hall and highway department complex on Charlton Road.