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Importance of a Comprehensive Administrative Record for Municipal Decision-Making

Environmental Land Use & Zoning Municipal

Like the sunrise every morning, one thing is certain: there will always be people displeased with a municipal board’s decision-making. If a legal challenge to a municipal board decision happens, the administrative record that the board created for that decision is critically important. Municipal boards, such as planning boards, zoning boards of appeal, and town boards, do not have unrestrained decision-making powers. The administrative record is a board’s way of justifying its decisions and will be reviewed by a court should a legal challenge occur.

What is the Administrative Record?

An administrative record typically includes written findings that analyze and connect the legal requirements governing the determination to be made to the facts contained in the record.[1] Simple regurgitation of the legal requirements, process to be followed, or an overview of the facts surrounding a decision are not enough to survive judicial scrutiny. Similarly, conclusory statements that are unsupported by what is in the administrative record would likely cause the court to find the board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious.[2] The objective should be to establish sufficient and legitimate evidence as part of the record to justify the board’s decision. Compiling the board’s administrative findings provides it with the vehicle for showing that it complied with the procedural and substantive requirements of state and local law.

If Challenged in Court, What is the Standard of Review?

Where there is an adequate administrative record, it can be challenging to overturn a municipal board’s decision. When challenged in court, a judge will sustain a municipal board’s decision if it has a rational basis, is supported by substantial evidence, was not made in violation of lawful procedure, was not affected by an error of law, was not arbitrary and capricious, and was not an abuse of discretion.[3] The evidence used to satisfy the substantial evidence standard must be contained within the administrative record and based on facts.

How Do Witnesses Factor in?

General community opposition to a development project is insufficient to support a board’s decision in favor of that opposition. Courts have distinguished specific instances of fact or first-hand observations that are incorporated into the record from conclusory or general observations.[4] General opposition that is rebutted by probative evidence cannot be the sole basis for denying an application.[5] For community members seeking to oppose projects, their objections may be properly considered by the board as part of the record so long as the statements are substantiated and entered into the record via public hearings or written submissions. Factual specific community concerns that are not made part of the administrative record cannot be and will not be considered by a judge in a subsequent legal challenge.

Municipal boards are given limited deference in certain situations, including regarding findings of fact on issues within their jurisdiction if supported by substantial evidence on the record. The findings, as part of the administrative record, must disclose all evidence relied on by the board in reaching its decision. Relying upon evidence outside of the administrative record is improper.

What if the Court Finds Against the Municipal Board?

If a board has failed to make findings supported by substantial evidence on the record and thus acted arbitrarily or capriciously, a court may either: (1) remit the matter back to the board for further proceedings/a “do-over,” or (2) annul the decision and direct the board to act a certain way, i.e., issue a permit or approval they initially denied. The second scenario will occur when the record clearly indicates a board’s decision is contrary to the law.[6]


Ensuring an adequate administrative record is important because if a board’s decision is challenged in court, full disclosure of evidence considered to reach the decision is the only way for the court to determine whether a board acted according to facts supported by evidence. Without this type of support, boards will likely lose when faced with legal challenges to their decision-making.

Advice for municipal boards: collect evidence from witnesses, community members, experts, and trusted sources. All such evidence should be made a part of the administrative record. Consider such evidence and note how it factors into the decision-making process. Only reasoned decision-making and memorialization of that process can protect against legal challenges to a board’s decision-making.

If you have questions about the importance of developing a strong administrative record, contact an experienced attorney at The Zoghlin Group for help. The Zoghlin Group offers a range of legal services related to Zoning and Land Use Law, including help at the administrative level, prosecuting or defending article 78 proceedings (either from the applicant or the opposition’s side), or acting as special counsel to administrative boards, agencies, and officers in defending against such challenges.

For inquiries related to Municipal LawEnvironmental Law, or Zoning and Land Use Law issues, please contact Jacob H. Zoghlin, Esq. or Mindy Zoghlin, Esq. at The Zoghlin Group, PLLC.



[2] Pyramid Co. of Watertown v. Planning Bd. of Town of Watertown, 24 A.D.3d 1312, 1314 (4th Dep’t 2005).

[3] Matter of Cowan v. Kern, 41 N.Y.2d 591, 599 (1977).

[4] Matter of Market Sq. Props. v. Town of Guilderland Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 66 N.Y.2d 893 (1985).

[5] Id.

[6] Syracuse Aggregate v. Weise, 51 N.Y.2d 278 (1980).


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