Troubleshooters and Why Words Matter: Appeals Court Overturns Board’s Interpretation of Zoning Bylaw

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As municipalities assert more control over development, zoning bylaws become more complex. And as mechanics, programmers, and lawyers all know, when there are many parts, there are many more opportunities for things to go wrong. Hence, the value of troubleshooting.

Provincetown learned this the hard way. In Sinaiko v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Provincetown, the building inspector’s interpretation of a zoning bylaw prevailed before the local zoning board and the Superior Court, only to be overturned by the Appeals Court because the bylaw had not been de-bugged.

Sinaiko concerns a zoning bylaw intended to regulate the size of all new buildings and additions in Provincetown – an effort to ensure a “relatively consistent and harmonious scale within neighborhoods.” The bylaw limits the size of by-right construction of a new building or expansion of an existing building. For new construction, the by-right limit is 25% larger than the average size of buildings within 250 feet of the “center of the

Mass. Appeals Court Ventures Onto High Wire of Zoning Standing Doctrine, Answers Vexing Question

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It’s about time!  Not since the notable 1961 adverse possession case Kershaw v. Zecchini have real estate litigators had an important decision inspired by circus performers.

In its recent decision in Murrow v. ESH Circus Arts, LLC, the Appeals Court answers a question that concurring Justice Peter J. Rubin notes “has vexed the judges of the trial court, who have reached different conclusions about it.”  In zoning appeals under M.G.L. c. 40A (the Zoning Act), plaintiffs may have the benefit of a rebuttable presumption that they are “persons aggrieved” – meaning they have standing to appeal.  This judicially-created presumption, which originated in the 1957 case Marotta v. Board of Appeals of Revere, is conferred on “parties in interest” as described in Section 11 of the Zoning Act.  Section 11 defines “parties in interest” as:

the petitioner [i.e., the applicant for zoning relief], abutters, owners of land directly opposite on any public or private

Appeals Court Interprets Chapter 91 License as Extending Private Way Over Lawfully Filled Land

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The Appeals Court’s recent decision in Maslow v. O’Connor at first glance appears straightforward. The holding reiterates a familiar tenet of Chapter 91 licensing – that a Chapter 91 license doesn’t affect pre-existing property rights. But the result is quirky: in the name of preserving access to tidelands, the court in effect extends a private way over filled tidelands in which public trust rights (the right to “fish, fowl and navigate”) have been extinguished.

The basic facts in Maslow are:

  • Plaintiffs own lots abutting Rackliffe Street in Gloucester, which runs north-south and originally extended to the mean high water mark of Wonson’s Cove.
  • Defendants own waterfront lots on either side of Rackliffe Street at its southerly end.
  • In 1925, defendants’ predecessor was granted a Chapter 91 license authorizing her to build a seawall and place fill behind it, which created a strip of upland (the grassy strip) between the end of Rackliffe Street and

Mass. SJC Expands Time for Bringing Property Damage Claims Under Chapter 21E

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Lawsuits to recover cleanup costs and property damages resulting from environmental contamination can be expensive and time-consuming. Plaintiffs should be sure their claims are timely before embarking on the litigation path.

M.G.L. c. 21E (Chapter 21E), the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention and Response Act, contains a statute of limitations provision, Section 11A. Until now, the law was reasonably clear on when a property damage claim must be brought. In its recent decision in Grand Manor Condominium Association v. City of Lowell (pdf), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) elaborated on the meaning of “damage” under Chapter 21E and redefined what triggers the statute of limitations for a property damage claim. In Grand Manor the SJC ruled that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the plaintiff learns that the damage to the property “is not reasonably curable by the remediation process.”

Section 11A(4) of Chapter 21E states that claims for property

Roma, III, Ltd. v. Board of Appeals of Rockport: Did the Supreme Judicial Court “Pave the Way” for Local Control of Drones?

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Earlier this year, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a relatively straightforward decision concerning heliports, home rule authority, and preemption – Roma, III, Ltd. v. Board of Appeals of Rockport (pdf). The decision held that a municipality could exercise its home rule authority to regulate private heliports and other non-commercial aircraft landing areas, and that neither state nor federal law preempts this local control. At the time, Roma did not seem blog-worthy. This is Massachusetts. Home rule is important.

And who could consider it sound policy to prohibit municipalities from regulating private aircraft landing activity, especially in industrial and commercial zoning districts? Not even a zealous Aeronautics Commission would want the responsibility of reviewing – and then approving, revising, or denying – proposed regulations for private landing areas in each of Massachusetts’ 351 towns and cities.

But then I thought about it differently. Allowing a municipality to regulate – even prohibit – a private

Mass. Appeals Court Clarifies Requirements For Extending Common-Scheme Real Estate Restrictions Beyond 30 Years

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In its decision today in Berger v. 2 Wyndcliff, LLC (pdf), the Massachusetts Appeals Court answered an important question about extending common-scheme real estate restrictions beyond the presumptive statutory limit of 30 years.  As to restrictions imposed as part of a common scheme applicable to four or more contiguous lots, M.G.L. c. 184, § 27 states in relevant part that an otherwise enforceable restriction cannot be enforced after 30 years:

unless . . . provision is made in the instrument or instruments imposing it for extension for further periods of not more than twenty years at a time by owners of record, at the time of recording of the extension, of fifty percent or more of the restricted area in which the subject parcel is located, and an extension in accordance with such provision is recorded before the expiration of the thirty years or earlier date of termination specified in the instrument . . . .

Berger

Mass. SJC Says Chapter 40B Doesn’t Authorize Override Of Municipally-Held Property Restriction

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In its recent decision in 135 Wells Avenue, LLC v. Housing Appeals Committee (pdf), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) confirmed that a property restriction held by a municipality cannot be overridden by the municipality’s zoning board of appeals – or by the state’s Housing Appeals Committee (HAC) – when acting on an application for a comprehensive permit under M.G.L. c. 40B.  Chapter 40B is the Massachusetts statute that promotes the construction of affordable housing.

In 2014, a developer, 135 Wells Avenue LLC, applied to the City of Newton Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a comprehensive permit to build a 334-unit residential development on a 6.3-acre lot in the city’s Wells Avenue Office Park. The lot is part of a larger parcel that is subject to a property restriction held by the city.  This restriction limits the permissible uses on that larger parcel to certain uses allowed in Newton’s limited manufacturing zoning district.  Residential uses are not allowed.  The developer argued that the

Mass. Appeals Court Rebuffs Mortgagee’s Novel Bid For Equitable Subrogation

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In its decision yesterday in Wells Fargo Bank v. Comeau (pdf), the Massachusetts Appeals Court rejected the plaintiff mortgagee’s attempt to use the doctrine of equitable subrogation in a novel way:  to impose on a surviving wife the obligation to pay a note signed by her late husband where the wife had not signed either the note or the mortgage.

The boiled down facts are as follows.  Husband and wife owned a home as tenants by the entirety.  In 2003 the property was mortgaged to a local bank.  Husband alone signed the note; husband and wife signed the mortgage.  In 2005 husband refinanced with a different bank.  This time husband alone signed both the note and mortgage.  In 2008 husband died, leaving a balance due on the note.  Wells Fargo, successor of the refinancing bank, did not assert a claim against husband’s estate before the statute of limitations expired.  Instead Wells Fargo sued wife, claiming its mortgage should be equitably subrogated to the position

When is a park constitutionally protected parkland? Mass. SJC re-examines test under Article 97

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In a decision of interest to municipalities, conservation groups, and land use experts, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently decided that a public playground in the City of Westfield is parkland protected by Article 97 of the Amendments of the Massachusetts Constitution.  Art. 97 provides, in part, that property “taken or acquired” for conservation purposes “shall not be used for other purposes” without approval by a two-thirds vote of each branch of the state legislature.  In Smith v. City of Westfield, the SJC expanded the reach of Art. 97 by concluding that municipal parkland may be protected even without a recorded restriction, provided the land has been dedicated as a public park.

The case concerned the Cross Street Playground in Westfield, a 5.3 acre parcel that is home to two baseball fields and a playground.  It has been a public playground for more than 60 years.  In 1979, Westfield received a grant from the federal government under the Land and Water

The Limits of Exclusive Use Rights in Condominium Common Areas

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It’s not unusual for condominium documents to set aside parts of the development’s common area for the exclusive use of particular units.  This device allows the developer to offer a degree of privacy in decks, driveways, garages, attics, and similar spaces that are affiliated with, but outside of, a unit.  But how exclusive is an exclusive use area?  The Massachusetts Appeals Court answered this question in a recent decision.

Calvao v. Raspallo (pdf) involved a two-unit residential condominium in Dennis, “down the Cape.”  The defendant Raspallo made some renovations to her unit, including an addition that encroached by 111 square feet into the exclusive use common area next to her unit.  She obtained permits for this work after the developer appointed her sole trustee of the condominium.  The owners of the other unit, the Calvaos, sued in Superior Court, where a judge ruled that Raspallo’s appointment as sole trustee was invalid and ordered the addition removed.  Raspallo appealed.

The Appeals Court first