Mass. SJC Reaffirms that Zoning Exemption for Educational Uses is Expansive; Residential Psychiatric Program for Adolescents Easily Qualifies

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In a noteworthy decision today, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reaffirmed that the exemption in the state’s Zoning Act, M.G.L. c. 40A, for uses deemed to be “for educational purposes,” is construed very broadly.  That exemption, which appears in Section 3 of Chapter 40A and is known as the Dover Amendment, provides in relevant part that:

[n]o zoning ordinance or by-law shall . . . prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes or educational purposes on land owned or leased by . . . a religious sect or denomination, or by a nonprofit educational corporation . . . .

The statute goes on to say that such land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures, yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, etc.

In The McLean Hospital Corp. v. Town of Lincoln (pdf), the high court considered a proposed residential program for adolescents run by the plaintiff, a renowned psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. The program treats males between 15 and 21 years old who exhibit “extreme emotional dysregulation.”  It aims to help these residents, most of whom have been treated in a hospital setting, to develop the emotional and social skills needed to return to their communities.  While much of the program consists of classroom instruction, its purpose is therapeutic: it employs a nationally recognized approach called “dialectical behavior therapy.”

Before purchasing land in Lincoln for its program, McLean sought a determination from the local Building Commissioner that its proposed use was a Dover-qualified educational use.  The Building Commissioner replied that it was.  Several nearby residents challenged that determination, and the Lincoln Zoning Board of Appeals reversed, finding that the program is primarily medical or therapeutic. McLean appealed to the Massachusetts Land Court, which affirmed the zoning board’s decision. McLean took a further appeal, and the SJC allowed McLean’s petition for direct appellate review.

The SJC noted there is little disagreement that McLean’s program includes an educationally significant component.  However, as the court added, this is not enough: the educational component of the program also must be the predominant purpose for which the land and proposed structures will be used. While the Land Court decided that the program’s predominant purpose is therapeutic, the SJC disagreed.  The court cited precedents holding that the line between education and rehabilitation is a blurry one, and it discounted the fact that the program includes medical personnel, such as nurses and a psychiatrist, on staff. The SJC dismissed the defendants’ warning of a slippery slope “in which every therapist’s or doctor’s office or hospital could become a facility afforded protection under the Dover Amendment.” The court also flatly rejected the defendants’ attempt to distinguish “outward-facing” skills (which help patients assimilate into their communities) from “inward-facing” skills (which help patients deal with symptoms of a mental disorder). The court stated, “We have not previously endorsed such a distinction, nor do the parties identify any case law or scientific research that would support such a concept.” The court concluded that any attempt to “sever that which is educational from that which is therapeutic is ordinarily a rather futile exercise.” The court remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of McLean.

McLean Hospital Corp. is a timely reminder that the Dover Amendment’s “educational purposes” exemption is broad and flexible, and encompasses activities that go far beyond traditional classroom instruction. Any proposed use that includes a significant educational component should be evaluated for possible Dover Amendment protection – a rare “Golden Ticket” in the world of Massachusetts land use law.