RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Bequest of Property for Libraries - 02/05/2021
A municipal public library has accepted a gift of real property and is selling the property. Ho...
Posted: Friday, February 5, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

A municipal public library has accepted a gift of real property and is selling the property.

How much autonomy does the Library have in accepting and selling this property? The sponsoring municipality feels that perhaps it is their responsibility to handle the sale according to their regular procedures, including a permissive referendum (as required by law).

Finally, who controls the proceeds from the sale?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

In law school, one of the first classes you take is "real property."
 

I remember thinking, back in that first semester before my brain got converted into that of a lawyer: "Real" property?  What...is there something called UNreal property?

Of course, nowadays when I see questions like this—about land, and land rights, and the laws impacting them—I think "Oooh...a question about real property!"

Warn your kids: this is what three years of law school will do to you.

I appreciate questions about real property, because I really enjoy working on issues involving land, and land rights, and the laws impacting them.  Whether it's roads, old buildings, or construction matters, some of my favorite work requires reviewing surveys, obsessing over title abstracts,[1] and poring over inspection reports.  And don't get me started about design-build contracts.

In this case, many of the fundamental considerations of this submission were addressed in a previous "Ask the Lawyer" from 12/13/2019.  So as a primer, readers may want to take a look at that previous answer, where we discuss some of the fundamental things a library has to consider when selling real property.

This background allows me to jump right into the specific concerns of the member's questions:

Question 1: "How much autonomy does the Library have in accepting and selling this property?"

Answer: unless there is a specific provision in the library's charter, bylaws, or contract with its sponsoring municipality that expressly creates some type of co-ownership, the library, as the sole owner, has ALL the autonomy.

Question 2: The sponsoring municipality feels that perhaps it is their responsibility to handle the sale according to their regular procedures, including a permissive referendum.

Answer: unless there is a clear legal claim that puts title entirely or partly into the municipality, the various state laws governing sale of municipal property do not apply; rather, the sale is governed by Education Law Section 226.

Question 3: Finally, who controls the proceeds from the sale?

Answer: the board of the library, and no one else.

 

To the member's brief, pithy questions, I will add a question of my own:

Question 4: Why am I so confident about the answers to questions 1 through 3?

Answer: because I have researched the following:

  • The relevant state laws and regulations of the State of New York
  • Case law regarding cases involving public library sale of property
  • Relevant guidance from the State Comptroller
  • Relevant guidance from the NY Attorney General
  • Relevant guidance from the State Education Department

These materials span over sixty years of library law-making, and I am not going to summarize them all here.  But for those who wish to dive a little deeper into this topic (buckle up, unless you, too, are interested in real property, I've been told this is pretty boring), here is a brief overview:

Education Laws 260 and 226, together, confirm that the trustees of every library chartered in New York,[2] may "[b]uy, sell, mortgage, let and otherwise use and dispose of its property as they shall deem for the best interests of the institution..."

Here are some examples showing how this legal structure has been applied:

In 1953, the NY State Comptroller opined that when a village and a library jointly acquired property, they were co-owners.[3]  This means a library can co-own a library building along with its sponsor (much as two individuals can co-own a parking lot).  If that is the case, the law and regulations applicable to both entities would govern a sale.  However, that same year, the Education Department confirmed that a chartered library is a separate entity from its municipal sponsor.[4]  

Flash forward to 1976, when the Comptroller stated that a school district library[5] could acquire a building on its own.[6]   Since that time, there hasn't been a lot of case law over who owns library buildings:[7] like any other stand-alone, not-for-profit education corporation, a library can own its own building.

That said, while the New York Education Law empowers public libraries to buy, sell, mortgage, and otherwise dispose of their real property, there are other laws and regulations controlling how the resulting assets can be used.[8]  This is why a public library (or any library) should not buy, sell, lease, or arrange for capital improvements without its lawyer involved (that goes double for accepting a bequest or a restricted donation of land or a building, which has not only legal/regulatory considerations, but could also be fraught with the drama that can accompany wills and transfers of land).

Now, in the midst of all this ownership/autonomy, it is good to remember: not all public libraries own their buildings.[9]  Some libraries are tenants of their sponsoring municipality (to check the ownership of the building, check the deed or the real property tax records for your county).  But even a library that is a tenant of their municipality buildings can own a separate building—if some nice person or entity decides to give them one.

So in a case like the one described by the member, the most useful thing would be to 1) check the library's charter; 2) check the documents giving title of the property to the library; and 3) make sure the lawyers for both the municipality and the library (and the buyer!) are on the same page about ownership and salability.  As the lawyers do their "real property" thing, so long as the title is "clear" and solely in the name of the library, it is the library who owns the property, and the board of the library who decides if/how to sell it (in a way consistent with its charter, bylaws, and charitable status....on that, see the "Ask the Lawyer" from 12/13/2019).

Thank you for a great question.



[1] A "title abstract" is a summary of everyone who has owned a parcel of property since it was first regarded as something to be owned.  It can contain all sorts of historically salacious details, like when a house was foreclosed on, or what it sold for in 1935.

[2] Which all Regents-chartered "municipal" libraries are.

[3] Opinion of the State Comptroller #142 (1953).

[4] Opinion of Counsel for the NY Education Department No. 61 (also 1953).

[5] Another type of "public" library.

[6] Opinion of the State Comptroller #771 (1976).

[7] There is a lot of case law involving the planning and construction of library buildings, but no squabbles about who actually owns them.  For a good example of a case involving construction of a library, see Matter of Rimler v City of NY, 53 Misc 3d 1212[A], 2016 NY Slip Op 51627[U] [Sup Ct, Kings County 2016].

[8] Martin v Board of Education, 39 Misc. 2d 519, 241 N.Y.S.2d 396, 1963 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1971 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963).

[9] It is important to know who owns the building!  If your library is a tenant rather than an owner, it impacts things like personal injury cases (an example of this is found in Deinzer v Middle Country Public Library, 2013 NY Slip Op 33823[U] [Sup Ct, Suffolk County 2013].

Tags: , Municipal Libraries, Property, Public Libraries

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