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Posted: June 26, 2014

No Prohibition On Utilities Permitting Use Of Their Poles To Mount Strips Demarcating Eruv In Westhampton Beach

Magistrate Judge Kathleen Tomlinson’s June 16, 2014 decision in Verizon v. The Village of Westhampton Beach, et al., No. 11 Civ. 252 (AKT), allows the establishment of an eruv to proceed in Westhampton Beach. An eruv is an “unbroken delineation of an area” that allows Jews “with certain religious beliefs to carry or push objects from place to place within the area during the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.” Slip op. 1. The court ruled that there is no bar to Verizon and the Long Island Lighting Company (“LIPA”) allowing the placement of wooden or plastic strips, known as “lechis,” on their telephone and utility poles for the purpose of demarcating the eruv. In the action, Verizon and LIPA sought a declaratory judgment that they would not incur any liability to the towns of Westhampton Beach, Quogue, and Southampton by entering into agreements with the East End Eruv Association (“EEEA”) permitting the Association to install the lechis. In a related case, the EEEA asserted that its members’ constitutional rights were violated by the towns when they allegedly prevented establishment of an eruv. The utilities’ declaratory judgment action is less glamorous, turning on the construction of the utilities’ franchise agreements, the state Transportation Corporations and LIPA statutes, and the scope of the towns’ police powers. (The action was stayed as to Southampton so the June 16 ruling pertains only to Westhampton Beach and Quogue.)
Although it was undisputed that the utilities own the poles on which the lechis were sought to be placed, the towns argued that the utilities lacked authority to license use of their poles for other than utility purposes. However, this argument fell flat given that the utilities had previously allowed the temporary mounting of posters and banners announcing local events, such as the Westhampton Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The court construed the utilities’ franchise agreements with the towns and found they contained no prohibition on the utilities licensing use of their poles for non-utility purposes. See Slip op. 24. The court also found that the Transportation Corporations Act, which the court determined was applicable to Verizon, but not LIPA (which was created by statute as a “subdivision of the state,” and was therefore not a corporation subject to the Transportation statute, Slip op. 28), did not bar Verizon from entering into such license agreements. See Slip op. 31-32. As to LIPA, the court determined that Section 1020-g(c) of the LIPA Act gives LIPA “the discretion to lease or use its poles as it sees fit.” Slip op. 39.
That left the question whether the towns’ police powers permit them to prevent the utilities from licensing the use of their poles for placement of lechis. The court held that although the municipalities could regulate the mounting of lechis under their police powers, Westhampton Beach had no ordinance doing so, and as a result there was no municipal regulatory bar to the utilities permitting placement of lechis on their poles. As to Quogue, the town had denied EEEA’s application to place lechis on certain utility poles under an ordinance allowing Quogue to regulate encroachments onto public roads, but the utilities disputed the applicability of that regulation to lechis. See Slip op. 57. The court allowed further briefing on the issue of whether it could interpret the ordinance in light of Quogue’s denial of the application.

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