Real Estate

BREAKING: Mass. SJC Rules on Compatibility of Short-Term Rentals with Single-Family Zoning

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today weighed in on the zoning permissibility of short-term rentals, a much-contested and important area of concern.

In its decision in Styller v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield (pdf), the SJC affirmed a Land Court decision concerning an appeal from a decision of the Lynnfield Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which affirmed a cease-and-desist order prohibiting short-term rentals (STRs) of the plaintiff Styller’s property without a special permit.

Styller owned a five-bedroom single-family house on three aces in a single-residence zoning district.  The Styller family lived on the premises. Beginning in 2015, Styller rented the property through various short-term rental websites. The STR use came to the town’s attention after a renter held a 100+ person party at the property, during which one attendee was shot and killed. The Building Inspector sent a cease-and-desist notice, concluding that the STR use was an “additional” use: either a prohibited hotel use or an unauthorized lodging or rooming

Somerville Urban Renewal Taking Survives Challenge

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In Cobble Hill Center LLC v. Somerville Redevelopment Authority (pdf), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) upheld the eminent domain taking by the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) of 3.99 acres of land located at 90 Washington Street in Somerville.

Cobble Hill, the owner of the parcel, argued that the taking was improper because there was no approved urban renewal plan that covered its property, and the SRA could only take by eminent domain property that is included within an approved urban renewal plan.  The SRA countered that the provisions of M.G.L. c. 121B, § 46(f) (§ 46(f)) authorized the taking.

Takings by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) under § 46(f) were the subject of a 2019 SJC opinion in Marchese v. Boston Redevelopment Authority, in which the court upheld the BRA’s taking of easement rights which rights were then transferred to the Boston Red Sox for use for Fenway Park.  While Marchese

Fate of Municipal Harbor Plans Thrown Into Question

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The Superior Court’s April 1, 2021 decision in Armstrong v. Theoharides (pdf) was no April Fool’s joke and could have far-reaching consequences for Massachusetts waterfront development.  In a case against the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) brought by the Conservation Law Foundation and residents of the Harbor Towers condominium complex in Boston, the court sided with the plaintiffs and found that the Secretary exceeded her authority in approving the Boston Downtown Waterfront District Municipal Harbor Plan (the Boston Waterfront MHP). That approval would have allowed the construction of a 600-foot-tall tower at the site of what is now the Aquarium Garage, as well as the development of the Hook Lobster site, both on Atlantic Avenue in Boston.

Municipal Harbor Plans (MHPs) are codified in EEA regulations at 301 CMR 23.00 et seq. (the MHP Regulations) and affect licensing by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under the state’s Public Waterfront Act, M.G.L. c. 91 (Chapter 91), and its

Mass. Appeals Court Imports Chapter 40A Presumption of Standing into Boston Zoning Enabling Act

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A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, Porter v. Board of Appeal of Boston (pdf), addressed the question of standing to appeal a variance granted by the Board of Appeal of Boston (“BOA”).  Zoning in Boston is governed by c. 665 of the Acts of 1956, as amended (the “Enabling Act”), not by M.G.L. c. 40A (the “Zoning Act”), which applies to all other cities and towns in Massachusetts. See Emerson College v. City of Boston, 393 Mass. 303 (1984).  In Porter, the Appeals Court applied to the Enabling Act standards and legal reasoning that are derived from unique language in the Zoning Act.  The court found that parties entitled to receive notice under the Zoning Act are presumed to have standing under the Enabling Act.

The pro se plaintiff in Porter appealed a variance granted to a nearby property owner. In his complaint, the plaintiff claimed to be

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