MEAN WHAT YOU SAY
I suppose that given the most recent inhabitant of the White House – who is gone to Mar-a-Lago but hardly forgotten – discussions of the warts, real or imagined, of former presidents must seem like nitpicking. But still, we recall that back when George Stephanopoulos was a mere flack for President Bill Clinton and not yet a respected television commentator for ABC, he parried a skeptical Larry King with a defense that was unintentionally candid.
President Clinton, George declared, had “kept all of the promises he intended to keep.” Any suggestion that the President might have lacked veracity at times may today seem hopelessly quaint. But the malefactors in today’s case apparently tried it out for themselves.
In order to get a zoning variance to add on to their newly-purchased estate in the tres chic village of Centre Island, New York (once home to Billy Joel and his $32.5 million shanty), the Comacks promised not to let the shrubs and trees obstruct anyone’s view of Oyster Bay. Believing their sincere pledge, the Village OK’d the proposal.
A few years later, the bushes were high and the trees were leafy, and the Comacks said something to the effect of, “Promise? What promise? Oh, that promise… It’s… uh… kind of unclear what we really intended to promise. Let’s just forget the whole thing.” Or something like that.
The Village elders didn’t forget it, soreheads that they apparently were, and sued the Comacks. The trial court found for the Comacks, but the court of appeals reversed and required the Comacks to keep their word. The appellate judges apparently could figure out what the meaning of “is” was.
Incorporated Village of Centre Island v. Comack, 39 A.D.3d 712, 834 N.Y.S.2d 288 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., 2007). In 1999 the Comacks purchased property in the village of Centre Island and sought a variance to maintain and enlarge the pre-existing, nonconforming home on the lot. Specifically, they sought to build a second-story addition over the existing garage and to change the roof line. The proposed expansion and changes would have necessarily affected the neighboring properties’ existing views of the waters of Oyster Bay. And, Centre Island being a ghetto of the fabulously well-to-do, the unobstructed views of all that their wealth had enabled them to accumulate were rather important to the residents.
In consideration for the granting of the variance, the Comacks signed a “Declaration” that provided “[a]ll open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay shall remain in their present unobstructed state … [n]o trees or major shrubs shall be planted on lots 85 and 86 with the exception of minor shrubs and bushes which if allowed to grow to full height would not impede the aforesaid open views. Any shrubs or plants which if allowed to grow to maturity would exceed three feet in height will require the approval of the village building inspector for compliance with the intent of the declaration …”
The variance was granted, but a few years later, shrubs and trees planted by the Comacks began obstructing neighbors’ views of the Bay. The Village sued. The trial court agreed with the Comacks that the “Declaration” was vague, and that the case should be dismissed. The Village appealed.
Held: The trial court was wrong. It was the Village’s complaint that should be granted, not the Comack’s request that it be dismissed. Contrary to the trial court’s determination, the language of the “Declaration” and, in particular, the first provision thereof, was not “imprecise and vague” so as to render it unenforceable. Instead, the “Declaration” — read as a whole to determine its purpose and intent — is clear that the Comacks made a deal. In consideration for the granting of the variance, the Comacks agreed to maintain “[a]ll open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay … in their present unobstructed state.”
Because there is no ambiguity, the “Declaration” must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms. The Court held that to the extent that certain shrubs and trees planted by the Comacks obstructed “open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay,” these violate the “Declaration.” The Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the Village was entitled to damages and whether the Comacks should be ordered to cut down certain shrubs and trees from the subject property that obstructed “open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay.”
– Tom Root