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Challenge to Islanders' new Belmont Park arena thrown out; "rational basis" rules, and judge punts on whether it was a "done deal"

Any legal challenge to a New York State agency decision goes uphill, given the limited role of the courts, so it's no surprise that a state Supreme Court justice has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Village of Floral Park and allies to annul the approval of the new Belmont Park arena project and to require new findings regarding the impact of the arena and associated hotel and retail village.

"The Court recognizes that the approval of the Project goes against the VILLAGE’s legitimate concerns with respect to the scope of the project and the impact on its residents," wrote Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Roy S. Mahon in his 5/12/20 decision, first reported yesterday by Newsday.

"Nonetheless, the Court’s review is limited to the evaluation of whether the determination was made in violation of lawful procedure, was affected by an error of law, or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion," he wrote.

But the court can't "substitute its judgment for that of an agency," he stated, and he "found a rational basis for the determinations" by Empire State Development (the state authority that also approved Atlantic Yards), as well as the Franchise Oversight Board.

Floral Park Mayor Dominick Longobardi, in a statement, expressed disappointment and said "we will continue to monitor the development of the project as it moves forward and work tirelessly to ensure any effects on our quality of life are minimized to the greatest extent possible." To Newsday, he didn't rule out an appeal.

"Good news," but clouds

Newsday quoted Nassau County Executive Laura Curran as calling the decision “good news" for the county. Construction has been suspended for the coronavirus crisis, but the arena could open by October 2021, as scheduled, if construction resumes soon, Newsday noted.

That said, the business case for the arena, already cloudy given competition with the nearby Nassau Coliseum, has gotten even cloudier, given the likelihood that large-venue events will be the last to reopen in the wake of the pandemic. (The advent of a vaccine by 2021, of course, could change that.)

From the decision

Several of the causes of action filed by Floral Park regarded the environmental review, such as failing to take a “hard look” at the project's potential traffic impacts and the project's modifications (such as introducing two 30,000 liquified petroleum gas tanks on the property), and ignoring local needs and local/ regional planning documents,

The most intriguing, and troubling charge was that the arena plan was, essentially, a "done deal."

From the judge's summary:
In November 2016, Christopher Kay, the then president and chief executive officer of NYRA [New York Racing Association, which operates the racetrack], circulated a proposed plan for the development of Belmont Park to the chairman of the FOB [New York Franchise Oversight Board], as well as several other New York State officials (the “2016 NYRA Plan”). The 2016 NYRA Plan contemplated the development of the under-utilized parcels to include a sports arena that would be the future home of the Islanders hockey team, a hotel, and a retail complex. It also contemplated certain upgrades to and expansion of NYRA's existing racetrack facilities. In 2017, the FOB determined that the 2012 RFP [request for proposals] should be closed and that a new RFP should be issued. On July 28, 2017, FOB adopted a resolution requesting that ESD issue a new RFP for the re-development of the two under-utilized parcels. ESD issued an RFP on July 31, 2017. Three proposals were submitted, one of which was withdrawn.
Floral Park alleged that the RFP was tailored for the Islanders, given that the NYRA plan included a hockey arena.

The response from Empire State Development and the state Franchise Oversight Board was significantly procedural, arguing that Floral Park lacked standing to challenge the RFP process. The respondents also said the charge lacked merit.

The judge agreed that the village lacked standing, as it failed to show it "has suffered an injury in fact distinct from that of the general public." The only parties suffering a "direct injury" would have been other bidders, and they weren't part of the case.

"To the extent that the village claims harm arising from the outcome of the bidding process," the judge wrote, that regarded the environmental impacts--and those were dismissed on other grounds.

"These concerns do not fall within the zone of interest of a competitive bidding statute," the judge wrote. "In view of the Court’s determination on standing, the Court need not reach the other grounds for dismissal articulated by the respondents/defendants."

In other words, he punted on whether it was a "done deal."