October 20, 2021

Student housing landlord cites city exemption process

2nd suit targets zoning

Travis Dunn/Staff Reporter

Landlord Marc Pace, pictured in front of one of his properties at 34 Pleasant Ave., won a lawsuit against the city of Cortland over a Board of Zoning Appeals decision related to the city’s occupancy law for rental properties.

The city of Cortland is again being sued by a student housing landlord over zoning issues after losing a zoning case against another landlord earlier this month.

The most recent case, filed Aug. 22 by Paradigm Properties, alleges that city officials refused to process applications requesting exemptions from the city zoning that restricts occupants in rental properties to three or fewer unrelated occupants. If more people live in a rental property, city law requires they be “the functional equivalent of a family.”

Paradigm Properties applied for a variance on Oct. 15, 2018, for properties at 36, 46, 48 and 50 Clayton Ave., 8 Hill St., 111/2 Owego St. and 20 Stevenson St. The company then applied for another variance for these properties on May 10.

Both applications make comparisons between the Paradigm-owned properties and other rental properties that city officials have granted exemptions to. The suit alleges city officials “have refused to process” either of Paradigm’s variance applications.

The city lost another case in August involving the rental property occupancy law. That suit, filed by landlord Marc Pace, ended with an Aug. 8 decision by Judge Donald F. Cerio Jr. in state Supreme Court in Madison County in which Cerio annulled a Zoning Board of Appeals decision against Pace.

Pace argued that the five unrelated occupants of his property at 52 Clayton Ave. constituted “the functional equivalent of a family.”

Cerio ordered the zoning board of appeals to consider “whether the five occupants of the subject property satisfy the definition of the term ‘family’ as that term is defined” in city code. Cerio agreed with Pace that the board failed to show it had “a substantively comprehensive discussion or deliberation” of Pace’s argument, or that it based its decision on “factual findings.”

Cerio further found the board did not address Pace’s concerns about the uniform enforcement of its zoning laws and that “the record is bereft of any substantive review by the ZBA with respect to uniformity of application.” Cerio also ordered the ZBA to consider whether zoning officials “have applied and enforced (city code) uniformly and equally with respect to properties similarly situated as that of the petitioner.”

Pace and some other student housing landlords have long alleged that city officials have shown favoritism toward certain landlords while aggressively pursuing others, especially over the occupancy law.

Cerio did not, however, rule on the legality of the occupancy law itself, which he noted was found to be “not unconstitutionally vague” and “did not run afoul of the Fifth Amendment” by the Appellate Division’s
Third Department in the 2018 case Grodinsky v. City of Cortland.

The two cases also have another connection: The owner of Paradigm Properties, Gary Seales, is mentioned in the June 13 proceedings of Pace’s suit. Pace argued to Cerio that he and Seales were being unfairly targeted by city officials.

City Attorney Richard Van Donsel, however, argued that “Mr. Seales is not a good example of what Mr. Pace is trying to suggest.” The reason, he argued, is that Seales had “agreed to go to the ZBA and ask for permission” — permission for a variance over which Seales would file suit two months later alleging the city refused to process.

Van Donsel could not be reached for comment.

A third student landlord, Gerry Ruggerio, also recently led a lawsuit against the city over zoning laws.
That suit, led Aug. 8 in the same court — Madison County Supreme Court — before the same judge — Cerio — takes aim at two things:

  • The city’s requirement for rental properties in the R-1 zone to have special-use permits.
  • Zoning restrictions on parking on these rental properties.

Ruggerio alleges the city failed to perform a State Environmental Quality Review Act review when passing the zoning laws, although the code changes apply to an area of more than 25 acres, a threshold that he argues would trigger a review.

The suit also claims city officials failed to enforce zoning laws uniformly, or in other words showed preferential treatment to certain landlords while targeting others — similar to arguments made in the Paradigm and Pace suits.