Many times, increased development or changed uses of land are opposed by neighboring residential property owners. In Franson v. City of Woburn (Mass. Land Ct. Sept. 14, 2016), the Massachusetts Land Court decided a zoning dispute involving a development group seeking to construct 18 townhouses. The property at issue was located in a single family residential zoning district, directly abutting a business and commercial district. In order to build, the development group filed an application for the property to be rezoned to a district allowing for multifamily housing. After the city council approved the rezoning, residents in the surrounding neighborhoods challenged the rezoning as “spot zoning,” illegal contract zoning, and arbitrary and capricious.
Spot zoning occurs when one lot or a small area has been singled out for treatment less onerous than that imposed upon nearby, indistinguishable properties. Selective zoning of that kind violates the uniformity requirements of Massachusetts law and constitutes a denial of the equal protection under the law that is guaranteed by the state and federal Constitutions. Whether the approval of the development group’s application constitutes spot zoning turns not on which parcel has been singled out, or even on the effect on the parcel, but instead on whether the change can fairly be said to be in furtherance of the purposes of the Zoning Act.
After reviewing the record, the land court found that the plaintiffs failed to meet the heavy burden of establishing that the rezoning approval conflicted with the Zoning Act and was therefore spot zoning. The court also found that based on the hearings and opinions presented, the city council reasonably concluded that rezoning the parcel of land at issue would further long-standing goals of providing additional housing inventory and public access to a nearby historic site. The court went on to explain that the record showed a rational and calculated effort by the city council to achieve long-standing objectives to advance the general welfare of the city. In addition, there was a practical basis for rezoning, since the property is located adjacent to a business-highway district and a shopping plaza, and changing the neighborhood would create a buffer between the residential and business zones.