Land Use

Public Trust Doctrine – Mass. High Court Finds Municipal Harbor Plan Regulations Involve Unlawful Delegation of DEP Authority

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In this April 2021 blog post we discussed the Superior Court’s decision in Armstrong vs. Theoharides.  Since then the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) took the case on direct appellate review and earlier this week the SJC issued a decision (pdf) affirming the Superior Court.  The SJC found that the longstanding procedure for approving Municipal Harbor Plans – in which the key decisions are made by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs (the Secretary) – involve an unlawful delegation of the licensing authority that the Legislature gave the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under the state’s Public Waterfront Act, M.G.L. c. 91 (Chapter 91).

Municipal Harbor Plans (MHPs) are codified in regulations at 301 CMR 23.00 et. seq. (the MHP Regulations) and affect licensing by DEP under Chapter 91 and its implementing regulations at 310 CMR 9.00 et. seq. (the Chapter 91 Regulations). In order to obtain a license to

Breaking: Mass. High Court Expansively Interprets Zoning Exemption for Solar Energy

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Massachusetts has committed to increasing the generation of electricity from renewable energy sources, such as solar power, through a series of laws and policies. As solar energy systems have proliferated, trial courts have been asked to determine the limits of local government power over where large ground-mounted solar energy facilities can be sited. For the first time, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has interpreted statutory language enacted decades ago that exempts solar energy systems from zoning regulation. In its decision yesterday in Tracer Lane II Realty, LLC v. City of Waltham (pdf), the SJC acknowledged the need for large ground-mounted solar arrays to meet the Commonwealth’s renewable energy goals.

Section 3 of the Massachusetts Zoning Act (Section 3) – aptly named “Subjects which zoning may not regulate” – protects certain favored uses from local zoning laws. At issue in Tracer Lane was the ninth paragraph of Section 3, which concerns solar energy systems. The plaintiff solar

Appeals Court Resurrects Neighbors’ Claims Against Noisy Vineyard Venue

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In its recent decision in Allegaert v. Harbor View Hotel Owner, LLC, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed in part two Superior Court judgments dismissing the plaintiffs’ zoning appeals. In the process the Appeals Court helpfully clarified some procedural issues that often arise in such cases.

The plaintiffs in Allegaert are neighbors of the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. The hotel is a longstanding nonconforming use in what is now a residential neighborhood. In the early 1990s the hotel received special permits to serve food and beverages in certain outdoor areas. In 2019 the hotel applied for a new special permit to replace an existing pool bar with a new bar near the pool but outside the pool fence. The Edgartown zoning board posted and published notice of the hotel’s application and claims to have sent notice by mail to abutters and other parties-in-interest as required by M.G.L. c. 40A, § 11. After a public hearing the board

Mass. High Court: Three-Year Clock for Wetlands Protection Act Enforcement Actions Re-Starts With Every Sale of Property

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently handed a victory to a conservation commission seeking to impose an enforcement order on a property owner who bought land containing unauthorized fill placed there by a prior owner 35 years before.  The SJC ruled that the “statute of repose” in the state Wetlands Protection Act, which protects property owners from enforcement for prior violations in certain situations, does not run with the land.

The Wetlands Protection Act, M.G.L. c. 131, § 40 (the Act), generally prohibits removing, filling, or altering wetlands without an order of conditions from a local conservation commission.  The Act also provides that “[a]ny person” who acquires property on which work has been done in violation of the Act shall restore the property to its original or permitted condition; but the Act limits the time period during which an enforcement action against “such person” may be brought.  Specifically, an action must be brought within three years of the recording of the deed (or

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

In Rare Move, SJC Enters Immediate Order Reversing Decision That Broadened Density-Based Standing in Zoning Appeals

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In what passes for high drama in the world of Massachusetts land use law, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), after hearing oral argument last Thursday in an important case involving standing in zoning appeals, entered an order the next day reversing the Appeals Court decision under review and reinstating the trial court’s decision dismissing the complaint. The SJC’s order reads simply, “The judgment of the Land Court dated June 5, 2018, dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint for lack of standing, is hereby affirmed. Opinion to follow.”

The case is Murchison v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Sherborn. The Appeals Court’s decision, which came out last fall, caused a mini-earthquake within the real estate development bar. The case involves a neighbor’s challenge to a building permit authorizing the construction of a house on a vacant lot that the neighbor claims doesn’t meet the applicable lot-width requirement. The lot, which is wooded, is across a street from the neighbor’s house. Both lots are

Mass. Legislature Weighs Changes to Zoning Act; Quick Decision on Plaintiff’s Standing is Proposed

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Two bills pending at the Massachusetts State House would amend the state Zoning Act, known as Chapter 40A, which governs zoning in every Massachusetts city and town except Boston. The Zoning Act is seldom amended, even though courts and land use lawyers are well aware of its shortcomings. This is no doubt because zoning is often a hotly-contested political issue. But commonsense changes to Chapter 40A, while difficult to accomplish, can yield significant benefits for all concerned with real estate development in the Commonwealth.

Will Standing Determination be Front-loaded?

A bill introduced in the Massachusetts Senate, Senate Bill 1024 (pdf), tackles one of the most vexatious aspects of zoning for developers – the standing of abutters to sue. Standing is a prerequisite for filing a case in court; generally speaking, to have standing to sue, plaintiffs must show they’re harmed or that their rights are impacted in some material way. In other contexts a defendant can quickly move to dismiss

Mass. High Court Says Not All Divisions of Land Require Planning Board Approval, Dismisses Prospect of “Wild Deeds”

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In its recent decision in RCA Development, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Brockton (pdf), Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered whether a division of land into two lots accomplished solely by deeds describing the new lots, with no plan having been drawn or approved by the local planning board, is valid. Without hesitation the SJC held that it is.

In 1964 the owner of a lot in Brockton conveyed the northern half of the lot to the owner of a northerly abutting lot, and the southern half of the lot (the locus) to the owner of a southerly abutting lot. Each half of the original lot independently complied with the then-existing frontage, lot-depth, and area requirements. Going forward, the locus and the southerly abutting lot were conveyed together but continued to be separately described. At some point a house was built on the southerly abutting lot but the locus remained vacant.

In 2016 the plaintiff applied for a permit to

Late-Filed Appeal to Zoning Board is a Nullity, Not a Springboard to Constructive Approval

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court’s recent decision in McIntyre v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Braintree demonstrates the importance of subject matter jurisdiction in the context of administrative proceedings.  The plaintiffs appealed the issuance of a building permit authorizing construction of a single-family house on an abutting lot.  Though they knew immediately that the permit had issued, the plaintiffs didn’t file their appeal until 44 days later, well past the 30-day deadline imposed by M.G.L. c. 40A, § 15.  Despite the lateness of the appeal, the Braintree zoning board of appeals (ZBA) held two hearings before determining that it had no jurisdiction to consider the merits of the appeal.  At the second hearing the ZBA voted unanimously to deny the appeal but did not issue a written decision that day.

If these were all the facts there probably wouldn’t have been a court case.  But of course there’s more.  The same statute that imposes the filing deadline – M.G.L. c. 40A, §