Mass. High Court Declines to Expand Prior Public Use Doctrine

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In its decision last week in Town of Sudbury vs. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) declined to expand the reach of the common-law prior public use doctrine. As the court explained, “[u]nder this long-standing doctrine, public lands acquired for one public use may not be diverted to another inconsistent public use unless the subsequent use is authorized by plain and explicit legislation.” In this case the Town of Sudbury sought to prevent the defendant Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) from entering into an easement agreement with Eversource for the installation and maintenance of an underground transmission line on an unused 9-mile right of way, approximately 4.3 miles of which is located in Sudbury.

The Town of Sudbury urged the court to find that use of the right of way by Eversource violated the prior public use doctrine because the MBTA’s transportation use was inconsistent with the electric transmission line use by Eversource, which the Town argued

Not Your Grandfather’s Nonconforming Structure: Mass. Appeals Court Discusses Difference Between Increasing an Existing Nonconformity and Creating a New One

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In perhaps a sign of the linguistic times, Appeals Court Justice James R. Milkey’s  opinion in the case of Comstock v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Gloucester received more media coverage for certain racial history commentary in a footnote than for the central zoning principles at stake. Yet, for zoning lawyers, there is far more to the ruling than the footnote.

First, Justice Milkey’s linguistic footnote: In Massachusetts and elsewhere, uses and structures in place prior to the effective date of various zoning and other regulations have long been referred to as “grandfathered.” In footnote 11 of its decision, the court acknowledges the “racist origins” of the term due to its prior use in the context of Reconstruction Era voter suppression. Certainly, the court is correct that the concept of time-exempted structures and uses can be discussed with other, less controversial, phrasing, and this post will do so.

Back to zoning. The extent to which a preexisting nonconforming structure can

Breaking: Massachusetts Attorney General Strikes Down Municipality’s Attempt to Ban Gas Installations in Buildings

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On July 21, 2020, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey struck down a by‑law passed by the Town of Brookline that would have disallowed most construction that included “fossil fuel infrastructure.” The Attorney General’s decision can be found here. This by-law would have prevented gas installations in new or substantially renovated buildings and would have required heat, hot water, and appliances to be all electric starting in 2021, with certain exemptions.

The Attorney General’s Municipal Law Unit is tasked with review of town by‑laws to assure they don’t conflict with state laws or the state constitution. This review is limited, and usually by-laws are approved unless there is a direct conflict. The Attorney General acknowledged the climate change policy behind the Brookline by-law, but confirmed that local laws cannot: (1) conflict with the state building code, (2) conflict with the state gas code, or (3) conflict with state law giving the Department of Public Utilities control over gas distribution.

The Supreme Judicial

Mass. Appeals Court Clarifies How Zoning Cases Can – and Can’t – Be Settled

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently decided that a settlement agreement resolving a zoning case brought by the Town of Bourne did not prevent neighbors from obtaining zoning enforcement inconsistent with that settlement. The case, Stevens v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Bourne, involved the use of a property in a residential zoning district as a wedding venue (commercial uses were not allowed). There were two sequential cases involving challenges to the use.

The first case arose from the building inspector’s cease and desist order to the property owner requiring a complete halt to the commercial use. The Town then brought a case in Land Court to enforce the order. That case was settled by an agreement between the Town’s administrative board and the property owner. The settlement agreement included dismissal of the Land Court case with prejudice. Critically, the Land Court did not decide whether the challenged use was lawful. The Building Inspector issued a new cease and desist order consistent with the

Wrong Procedure Costs City $1 Million Judgment Against Developer it Fined for Building Without Permits

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In a striking blow, stripping a city of a judgment of nearly $1 million, the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently reversed a superior court summary judgment awarding fines to the City of Haverhill for a developer’s violations of zoning laws. The city assessed the fines against the developer under the state building code and the local zoning bylaw for building without necessary permits. In Maroney v. Planning Board of Haverhill, the Appeals Court held that the city’s building inspector did not follow the required procedures to impose fines.

The developer, Maroney, had a special permit and subdivision plan approval for a 50‑lot residential subdivision, both of which required him to build a water pressure booster station to service certain lots in the subdivision. The developer built much of the subdivision, in conformance with the process outlined by the city, on lots that the water department considered serviceable. When Maroney attempted to go forward with development of lots that the water department considered

Under Massachusetts Obsolete Mortgage Statute, Mortgage Payable “On Demand” is Enforceable for 35 Years

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court decided last week that a mortgage stating it is payable “on demand,” with no maturity date or term, is governed by the so-called obsolete mortgage statute, M.G.L. c. 260, § 33. The case is Thornton v. Thornton and a link to the decision is here. The obsolete mortgage statute is designed to help remove old mortgages from land titles. It sets a term of 35 years from the mortgage recording date if the mortgage has no term or maturity date, or five years from the end of any stated term or maturity date. The time to enforce a mortgage can be extended by recording an affidavit that the mortgage is not satisfied, among other methods. As the Appeals Court has confirmed in Thornton, the obsolete mortgage statute cannot shorten the term of any mortgage. In this case, the related note did have a maturity date, but there was no reference to

First Circuit Compressor Station Decision Vacates DEP Air Permit, Addresses Environmental Justice and Noise Issues

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On June 3, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated an air permit issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and remanded the matter to the agency for further analysis. The case is Town of Weymouth v. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The First Circuit’s decision is linked here.

The case involves a fiercely opposed compressor station planned for existing industrial property in Weymouth, Massachusetts. This compressor is critical to Algonquin Gas Transmission’s Atlantic Bridge project, which will move natural gas from the Boston area to a new connection in Beverly, Massachusetts, to then be transported to consumers in New Hampshire, Maine, and New Brunswick.

The Town of Weymouth and other petitioners challenged many aspects of the air permit, and succeeded in forcing DEP to revisit its BACT (best available control technology) analysis. My colleagues Randy Rich and Emily Dupraz discuss the environmental and energy law implications of the decision

In Massachusetts, Defendant Who Prevails on Special Motion to Dismiss Lis Pendens Case Can Recover Appellate Attorneys’ Fees

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In its decision last week in DeCicco v. 180 Grant Street, LLC, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) answered a previously open question, confirming that a defendant who successfully moves to dismiss a complaint in which the plaintiff obtained a lis pendens is entitled to recover not only its trial court attorneys’ fees but also the fees it incurs on appeal, assuming the trial court’s decision is affirmed.

In DeCicco, the plaintiffs made a written offer to purchase the defendant’s property. The defendant accepted the offer but refused to complete the transaction. The plaintiffs filed suit for, among other things, breach of contract and specific performance, and obtained court approval of a memorandum of lis pendens. This is a document that gets recorded at the registry of deeds to provide public notice that the land at issue is the subject of a lawsuit that may affect its title.

Under the Massachusetts lis pendens statute, M.G.L. c. 184, §

Breaking: City of Boston Announces New Protocol for Resumption of “Essential” Construction This Month

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Late yesterday Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office announced a new protocol for re-starting city construction projects deemed “essential.” In mid-March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walsh ordered most construction in the city to cease. Since April 27, 2020, all projects involving essential construction have been required to file with the city a COVID-19 Safety Plan and an affidavit pledging to implement that plan. Starting yesterday, projects with approved safety plans and signed affidavits were allowed to begin preparing their construction sites with project-specific COVID-19 safety measures.

Under the new protocol, starting May 18, 2020, projects that (1) have all necessary permits in place, (2) have approved safety plans and signed affidavits on file, and (3) are sufficiently prepared to implement their safety plans, can resume construction, but only if the work is for:

  • hospitals;
  • public schools;
  • residential buildings of 1-3 units;
  • road and utility work; or
  • “other outdoor/open-air work such as steel

Man Bites Dog: Real Estate Developer SLAPPs Objecting Abutters’ Claims

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A decision late last year from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), 477 Harrison Ave., LLC v. JACE Boston, LLC (pdf), gives real estate developers a surprising new weapon when confronted by litigious neighbors.

The dispute began in 2012, when the plaintiff developer obtained zoning relief to redevelop a residential property in Boston’s South End. After several years of legal challenges by abutting property owners, the developer abandoned that zoning relief and pursued a new project that appeared to require no zoning relief. When it turned out the developer’s new project did require zoning relief, the abutters seized the opportunity to appeal the new zoning relief as well.

While the abutters’ new appeal was pending, the developer filed a separate case against them alleging abuse of process and violations of the Massachusetts unfair trade practices statute, M.G.L. c. 93A (Chapter 93A). After the abutters’ efforts to dismiss the new case were rejected, they filed counterclaims