Federal Oversight of Zoning within the Fire Island National Seashore

by Farrell Fritz, P.C.
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Fire Island is a 32-mile long, slender barrier sand bar island located between the Atlantic Ocean and the South Shore of Long Island.  The island, which varies in width from as little as about 550 feet to not more than about 1,760 feet, divides the Great South Bay and the westerly end of Moriches Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.  In a letter report prepared by the Department of the Interior in 1963 for the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Fire Island was described as containing “an impressive array of seashore resources,” including beaches that are “wide, clean, and gently sloping” and dunes that are “imposing and usually well stabilized by beach grass, bayberry, other vegetation, and some lowlying pitch pine.”  See, 1964 U.S.Code Cong. & Adm. News, p. 3714.  The report referred to the sunken forest in the western half of the island as “a gem of its kind,” dominated by several hundred year-old American holly trees.

In apparent concern for the potential destruction of Fire Island’s unique environmental resources, Congress passed the Fire Island National Seashore Act, 16 U.S.C. § 459e et seq. (“Act”) on September 11, 1964, which established the “Fire Island National Seashore” (“Seashore”).  The stated purpose of the Act was to conserve and preserve the Seashore’s “relatively unspoiled and undeveloped beaches, dunes, and other natural features.”

To achieve this objective, Congress provided the Secretary of the Interior (“Secretary”) with broad authority to condemn unimproved, privately-owned properties, and in limited situations, private properties that are being used in a manner that is inconsistent with any applicable standard contained in regulations promulgated under the Act.  The regulations, codified at 36 CFR Part 28, also set forth Federal standards to which local zoning ordinances must conform, articulating limitations on use, location, and size of structures on public and private property within the boundaries of the Seashore in order to reconcile the population density of the Seashore with the protection of its natural resources.

The Federal standards divide the Seashore into three distinct land use districts – the Community Development District, the Seashore District and the Dune District.  The Community Development District generally permits construction or expansion of existing residential units, religious institutions, schools and commercial units in existence before 1964.  The Seashore District permits alterations of existing improved properties, but prohibits new construction.  The Dune District prohibits all construction after 1978, except for dune crossing structures deemed necessary for public access to the beach.

Despite the Federal oversight, the Act does not preempt the four municipalities within the Seashore – the towns of Brookhaven and Islip, and the villages of Ocean Beach and Saltaire – from enacting and enforcing their own zoning regulations or to grant variances and other zoning approvals.  Instead, the Act directs the Secretary to establish guidelines for local zoning authorities to use in developing local zoning regulations that conform to the Federal standards, as well as a process by which the Superintendent of the Fire Island National Seashore (“Superintendent”) shall receive copies of all applications for variances, exceptions, special permits, and permits for commercial and industrial uses, notices of all public hearings concerning said applications, and notices of the final action taken on such applications from the local zoning authorities.

The Secretary is charged with reviewing local zoning regulations to ensure that they are consistent with the Act and its implementing regulations.  The Secretary must disapprove any zoning ordinance or amendment thereof that he considers adverse to the protection and development of the Seashore, or which fails to include requirements that the Secretary receive notice of certain land use approvals and permits granted by the local zoning authority.  Properties that are developed in accordance with an approved ordinance, or which are the subject of variances and other land use approvals that result in such property being used in a manner that conforms to the Federal standards are protected from condemnation under the Act.  By 1985, the Secretary had approved compliance with Federal standards for the four zoning jurisdictions within the Seashore.

As a result, applicants seeking to construct new or expanded structures within the Seashore must now comply with both the federal zoning standards and the applicable zoning regulations of the local zoning authority.  In recognition of the concurrent Federal jurisdiction within the Seashore, the codes of the towns of Brookhaven and Islip have regulations that specifically pertain to properties within the Seashore.  See, Brookhaven Town Code, Ch. 85, Art. XVIII; Islip Town Code, Ch. 68, Art. XXXVIII.  Similarly, the Village of Ocean Beach has adopted regulations that largely mirror the Federal regulations that require that the Superintendent be provided with notice of applications for building permits and certain zoning applications, as well as notice of final actions taken on said applications.  See, Ocean Beach Village Code § 164-4.

To protect their property from the risk of future condemnation, applicants seeking to construct, reconstruct or alter structures within the Seashore, and their consultants, should take the time to carefully review the Federal standards, as well as the local zoning regulations.  They should also closely monitor the processing of their application to ensure that the local zoning authority has properly referred the building permit or zoning application to the Superintendent of the Seashore.

Owners of property within the Seashore who have questions about the process should visit https://www.nps.gov/fiis/learn/management/federal-review-building-zoning-permits.htm or contact the local National Park Service office at (631) 687-4750.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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