Land Use

Mass. SJC: $3.5 Million Payday for Torrent of Errant Golf Balls Not a Fore-Gone Conclusion

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A Kingston couple was dealt a significant blow days before Christmas when the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) set aside a jury verdict awarding them $3.5 million in damages for errant golf balls hitting their property. In Tenczar v. Indian Pond Country Club, Inc. (pdf), the SJC ruled that the trial judge erred in his jury instructions concerning easements applicable to the property. The plaintiffs’ home was subject to an easement providing for the “reasonable and efficient operation” of a golf course in the “customary and usual manner,” but the trial judge didn’t present to the jury the question of whether the golf course’s operation met that standard. So the question remains, how many errant shots on the 15th hole at the Indian Pond Country Club are reasonable?

The Kingston Planning Board endorsed a subdivision plan in the fall of 1998 for a residential development surrounding a golf course. The subdivision developer, Indian Pond, recorded a declaration of covenants and restrictions shortly

And Environmental Justice for All? Mass. High Court Clarifies Application of EJ Policy

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In GreenRoots, Inc. v. Energy Facilities Siting Board, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), for only the second time, had an opportunity to interpret the Environmental Justice Policy (EJ Policy) promulgated by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA). The first time, in the 2014 case City of Brockton v. Energy Facilities Siting Board, the SJC decided, first, that the Energy Facilities Siting Board’s (EFSB) application of the EJ Policy was subject to judicial review, despite the EJ Policy’s express disclaimer that it doesn’t create any right to judicial review, and second, that agencies must provide greater public participation and increased scrutiny for projects near EJ populations that exceed certain environmental thresholds.

In GreenRoots the SJC clarified the second takeaway from City of Brockton, holding that the EFSB and other agencies under EOEEA’s purview must provide “enhanced public participation” and “enhanced analysis of impacts and mitigation” for projects that

Mass. High Court Clarifies Scope of New Zoning Act Bond Provision

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The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) last week gave real estate litigators an early holiday gift: an important, clarifying opinion on a recent amendment to Section 17 of M.G.L. c. 40A (the Zoning Act), which governs appeals to court from decisions of local zoning boards. The case is Marengi v. 6 Forest Road, LLC (pdf).

In 2020, as part of a wide-ranging economic development bill intended to spur housing production, the Legislature added (effective January, 2021) the following paragraph to Section 17:

The court, in its discretion, may require a plaintiff in an action under this section appealing a decision to approve a special permit, variance or site plan to post a surety or cash bond in an amount of not more than $50,000 to secure the payment of costs if the court finds that the harm to the defendant or to the public interest resulting from delays caused by the appeal outweighs the financial burden of the surety or

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