Litigation

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

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, §

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

Appeals Court Registers Objection to Superior Court Judgment Affecting Registered Land

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The Appeals Court’s decision yesterday in Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel (pdf) is a useful reminder that the Land Court’s jurisdiction over cases affecting title to registered land is exclusiveJohnson involved a dispute between the plaintiff homeowner and a neighboring church over Johnson’s longstanding use of a driveway on the church’s property for parking and for access to Johnson’s property. After years of amicable relations, in 2013 the church erected a six-foot fence along the property line that prevented Johnson from continuing to use the driveway. Johnson filed suit in Superior Court alleging that the fence was an unlawful “spite fence” under M.G.L. c. 49, § 21, which makes such fences a form of private nuisance. She also brought claims of negligence and adverse possession. The case went to trial solely on the nuisance claim, and the judge found for Johnson and ordered the church to install a series of gates in the fence to

Mass. Appeals Court Highlights Workaround for Identifying a Public Way

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The quality of a property’s frontage on a street or way can define its development potential and therefore its value. The gold standard, which will allow a comfortable check in the ‘frontage’ box in most Massachusetts municipalities, is having the amount of frontage required by the local zoning regulation on a public way. Not every city and town has a clean list of public ways, and there are often cost-based disincentives to declaring a way to be public when the status is unclear. An Appeals Court case decided last week, Barry v. Planning Board of Belchertown (pdf), confirms that there’s a seldom-discussed method of establishing that property fronts on a public way – estoppel.

There are three means of creating a “public” way in Massachusetts. See Fenn v. Town of Middleborough. The first method fell out of use in 1846 due to a change in the law. This involved dedicating the way to public use and the public accepting

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

Mass. Appeals Court Upholds Somerville’s Union Square Revitalization Plan

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In 2012, the City of Somerville, the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA), and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development approved the Union Square Revitalization Plan (the Plan), an urban renewal plan to be administered by the SRA under M.G.L. c. 121B. A taxpayer group and a landowner (Pishev) appealed the approval of the Plan, alleging that it violates Chapter 121B. In late July the Appeals Court upheld the Plan’s approval in Pishev v. City of Somerville (pdf), 95 Mass. App. Ct. 678 (2019).

Pishev’s property is identified as a parcel subject to eminent domain taking by the SRA under the Plan pursuant to the powers granted to the SRA by Chapter 121B. The Appeals Court first addressed the issue of standing and found that the taxpayer group did not have standing, citing St. Botolph’s Citizens Committee, Inc. v. Boston Redevelopment Authority (pdf) and finding that “[n]o sufficient causal or connective link exists between the injuries or

When Your Neighbor’s Tree Blots Out the Sun, Can You Force Them to Take It Down? Not In Massachusetts

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Imagine owning your dream house. You have your pool, your barbeque area, your big lawn for the kids to play on. You’ve worked your whole life for this, and now you have it. It’s perfect. Well, except for your neighbor’s overgrown 100-foot tall sugar oak. It’s so massive it blots out the sun. Your yard is bathed in perpetual shade. Your roof is covered in moss. You’re pretty sure you could grow mushrooms commercially. You complain to your neighbor. You mention cutting it down, or at least trimming it back. He laughs at you. That’s your breaking point. You’ve had enough. It’s time to sue him, right? Sure – just not in Massachusetts.

A case called Shiel v. Rowell (pdf) presents the age-old question of how society should resolve pesky disputes between neighbors involving trees. Should the courts impose reciprocal responsibilities on the neighbors, requiring them to consider the harm their healthy tree may cause to their neighbors

Troubleshooters and Why Words Matter: Appeals Court Overturns Board’s Interpretation of Zoning Bylaw

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As municipalities assert more control over development, zoning bylaws become more complex. And as mechanics, programmers, and lawyers all know, when there are many parts, there are many more opportunities for things to go wrong. Hence, the value of troubleshooting.

Provincetown learned this the hard way. In Sinaiko v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Provincetown, the building inspector’s interpretation of a zoning bylaw prevailed before the local zoning board and the Superior Court, only to be overturned by the Appeals Court because the bylaw had not been de-bugged.

Sinaiko concerns a zoning bylaw intended to regulate the size of all new buildings and additions in Provincetown – an effort to ensure a “relatively consistent and harmonious scale within neighborhoods.” The bylaw limits the size of by-right construction of a new building or expansion of an existing building. For new construction, the by-right limit is 25% larger than the average size of buildings within 250 feet of the “center of the

Roma, III, Ltd. v. Board of Appeals of Rockport: Did the Supreme Judicial Court “Pave the Way” for Local Control of Drones?

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Earlier this year, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a relatively straightforward decision concerning heliports, home rule authority, and preemption – Roma, III, Ltd. v. Board of Appeals of Rockport (pdf). The decision held that a municipality could exercise its home rule authority to regulate private heliports and other non-commercial aircraft landing areas, and that neither state nor federal law preempts this local control. At the time, Roma did not seem blog-worthy. This is Massachusetts. Home rule is important.

And who could consider it sound policy to prohibit municipalities from regulating private aircraft landing activity, especially in industrial and commercial zoning districts? Not even a zealous Aeronautics Commission would want the responsibility of reviewing – and then approving, revising, or denying – proposed regulations for private landing areas in each of Massachusetts’ 351 towns and cities.

But then I thought about it differently. Allowing a municipality to regulate – even prohibit – a private