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Many homeowners do not realize that making structural changes to a nonconforming house usually involves a legal process for approval.  In a February 8, 2019 Massachusetts zoning  case, the Supreme Judicial Court examined a law that exempts preexisting nonconforming structures from local zoning ordinances and bylaws in some situations when they are extended or altered.

The defendants in the case owned the second floor condominium unit in a two-unit house.  They sought to modify the roof of the house and add a dormer, thereby providing an additional by 677 square feet of living space.  It would also increase the preexisting nonconforming floor ratio area of the house, which presently exceeded the maximum allowed under the local bylaw.  As such, the defendants were required to apply for a special permit from the zoning board.

Many of the defendants’ neighbors, including the plaintiffs, appeared at the public hearing to oppose the permit.  The defendants presented evidence that the majority of the houses on their street already had partial or full third stories and were taller than the defendants’ existing building.  Town officials also noted that the proposed project would make the house appear more consistent, both in height and in design, with the others on the street.

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If you are seeking to build your new home on property located on a flood plain or watershed, local Massachusetts zoning  laws may significantly affect your plans.  In a February 5, 2019 real estate case, the property owners had difficulty obtaining approval to construct a single-family home on their lot.  Although a local zoning board had granted them a special permit, the owners of the adjacent property had appealed that decision, and it was reversed by the Superior Court.  The property owners subsequently sought review of the matter from the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

The lot at issue in the case was located in the town’s flood plain and watershed district.  Under the local by-law, a special permit may be granted for land within a flood plain and watershed district if the applicant proves that the land is not, in fact, subject to flooding, and has suitable drainage conditions for the proposed use.  Flooding as used in the by-law means in the sense that water rises and overflows over normally dry land.

The local zoning board found that the lot was subject to flooding.  The board also considered whether development of the proposed dwelling would be inconsistent with the purposes of the by-law, and whether the dwelling would violate public policy concerns.  Determining that it did not violate public policy concerns, the board allowed the special permit.  The Superior Court reversed, concluding that under the by-law, the board could not grant a special permit for a lot subject to flooding in fact, notwithstanding any policy considerations.

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Constructing or modifying a home often involves land use regulations, which may be navigated with the assistance of a Massachusetts real estate attorney.  In a January 31, 2019 case, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed a decision from a local conservation commission denying the plaintiffs’ request to build a single-family home on a lot.  The decision was affirmed by the Superior Court before the plaintiffs sought additional review from the Appeals Court.

In 2007, the plaintiffs in the case had filed a notice of intent with the commission, requesting an order of conditions to build their house.  After a public hearing in 2009, the commission denied the plaintiffs’ request, concluding that it did not meet the requirements of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protect Act, nor the town’s wetlands protection bylaw and regulations.  Over the next several years, the issue was appealed and remanded back to the commission for reconsideration.  Ultimately, the commission denied the plaintiffs’ request for a second time for failing to meet the standards required under land use laws.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that there was substantial evidence to grant the notice of intent, and that the commission was required to allow a waiver under the wetlands bylaw and the regulations.

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Sharing an access road or right of way with other property owners occasionally causes conflict, as in a recent Massachusetts real estate action.  The parties in the case owned adjacent lots in a residential subdivision that bordered a lake.  In a January 17, 2019 decision, the Land Court was presented with the question of whether and to what extent the parties had property rights in, or ownership of, a right of way easement leading to the lake.

The defendant in the case owned a lot in the same subdivision as the plaintiffs.  He used the right of way regularly to access the lake, and had made improvements to it, such as re-grading a sloped section and installing a portable, metal dock.  The co-plaintiffs filed the action seeking to clear title and for a declaratory judgment with respect to their ownership rights in the way.  They presented multiple, alternative theories to the court to establish their claims.

Ultimately, the plaintiffs prevailed on their claim that they owned the right of way up to the centerline, by operation of the Derelict Fee Statute.  Pursuant to the Massachusetts Derelict Fee Statute, a deed that conveys a piece of land abutting a way includes ownership of the way up to the centerline, unless otherwise expressed in the deed.  If the property on the other side of the way is conveyed as well, the full width of the way is conveyed.

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The classification of a road as a public or private way can be significant.  The decision may impact the level of control that adjacent property owners have over it, as well as the public services that are available to repair and maintain the way.  In a December 19, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff filed an action against the city, seeking a determination from the Land Court that the way allowing access to her home was private.  The distinction as a private way would exempt it from the requirements of a local zoning ordinance.

The primary question for the court was whether the way was an easement or a private way that could be considered frontage under the local zoning law.  As a preliminary matter, the Land Court held that the plaintiff had the burden of proof to show that the municipal ordinance did not apply to the way at issue.  The Land Court first looked to the original 1891 deed to determine the intent of the grantors.

The City argued that because the initial conveyance in 1891 included the area as a right of way, the intent of the grantor was to create an easement.  The plaintiff contended that the language granting the right of way in the deed was not a conventional easement, as there was no dominant or servant estate tied to the grant.  Further, the deed had granted a right of way over an area that currently served as the main road, which later became partially a private way and partially a public way open for use by the general public.

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In Massachusetts, a homeowner may have valid legal defenses against the lender in mortgage foreclosure proceedings.  In a December 27, 2018 Massachusetts foreclosure case, the issue was whether the foreclosure on the defendants’ home mortgage was void due to the bank’s failure to strictly comply with the provisions in the mortgage.  The bank appealed the matter after the trial court ruled that the foreclosure was void.

In Massachusetts, the statutory power of sale requires that, upon default, the lender comply with the terms of the mortgage and all foreclosure laws.  In 2015, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in Pinti that, to effect a valid foreclosure sale, the lender must strictly comply not only with the terms of the actual power of sale in the mortgage, but also with any pre-foreclosure conditions that are required before exercising the power of sale.  Thus, a lender’s failure to strictly comply with the notice of default provided in the mortgage renders the foreclosure sale void.

The strict compliance requirements of Pinti apply to any foreclosure case in which an issue with the failure to adhere to the mortgage terms was timely and fairly asserted in the trial court, or for any appeal before July 17, 2017.

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A dispute over parking may become a legal issue if it interferes with the property rights of one or more individuals.  For many condo residents, legal claims pertaining to their building may only be asserted by the owner, which is typically a condominium trust.  In such cases, the interests of the condominium trust must be represented by a Massachusetts real estate attorney during the legal proceedings.

In a January 7, 2018 case, the Land Court determined whether the plaintiff had the right to park on abutting property owned by the defendant. The plaintiff in the case was an individual owner of a residential condo unit.  She was also a trustee of the condominium trust that owned the condo building.  She filed her action in Land Court, without the representation of an attorney, in both her individual capacity and her capacity as a trustee.

In Massachusetts, while a person may represent oneself in most legal proceedings, only a member of the bar may represent another person or entity before a court.  Therefore, as an initial matter, the Land Court ruled that the plaintiff could not bring claims on behalf of the trust pro se, and that those claims must be dismissed. The court then went on to address her individual claims against the defendant.

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It is not uncommon for issues regarding property ownership to arise after the death of one of the co-owners.  In a December 19, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the Land Court decided a partition action among three brothers who co-owned a residential property.  During the course of the legal proceedings, however, one of the co-owners died, calling into question how the property should be divided.

When the partition action was initially filed in Land Court, the brothers held the property as joint owners with right of survivorship.  The partition would have terminated the joint tenancy with right of survivorship.  Therefore, had all three lived, a partition by sale and subsequent division of the proceeds would have provided one third of the net sale amount to each brother.

After the death of the one of the brothers during the partition proceedings, however, the Land Court was faced with another issue.  The question for the court was whether the net proceeds should be split in half between the two remaining survivors, or whether the partition proceedings had ended the joint tenancy and converted it to a tenancy in common, in which case the two surviving brothers would receive one third of the sale proceeds and the estate of the deceased brother would receive one third.

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Litigating ownership disputes in Land Court may be a way to establish clear title to property.  In a November 14, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff filed an action asserting his rights in a private way against the defendant, who was the owner as a matter of record.

The plaintiff in the case owned up to the centerline of the road at issue, where it was adjacent to his home.  The defendant’s mother had owned the other portion of the road, where it was adjacent to her home.  The defendant’s mother had transferred her interest in the road to the defendant pursuant to a deed.  However, the adjacent lot was conveyed to a different owner.

The plaintiff filed an action in Land Court, asserting several claims to establish ownership.  One of the claims sought a declaratory judgment that the defendant’s interest in the way was invalid, because it could not be separated from the adjacent property.  The plaintiff also contended that the defendant’s mother failed to reserve any rights in the way when she sold the adjacent lot, and therefore had no right to convey any interest in the road.

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Individuals seeking to improve a private road will generally need the consent of the owner, even if they have some property rights to use the road.  In a December 4, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiffs initiated legal action against the defendant in Land Court after he refused to allow them to pave the sole road providing access to the parties’ homes.  The defendant did not dispute that the plaintiffs held some type of an easement to use the road; however, he argued that they did not have the right to pave the road over his objection.

The parties owned seasonal homes on a secluded peninsula, which were accessible via one gravel-surfaced, private roadway.  The defendant was the fee owner of the gravel road, which was located on his property.  The roadway led to the plaintiffs’ house and continued past the defendant’s own house, serving a total of ten homes on the peninsula.  The plaintiffs wished to pave the road for easier travel and less damage to their vehicles, and because they believed it was a reasonable improvement.  The defendant believed that paving the road was unnecessary, and argued that doing so would worsen the road drainage problems, lead to non-residents’ use of the private road, allow cars to drive faster through the area, and overall change the feel of the small neighborhood.

Following a trial, the Land Court found that the plaintiffs had a prescriptive easement.  Their prescriptive easement was created by continued use of the road for the required statutory period.  Accordingly, the extent of their easement was limited to the use through which it was created, i.e., travel to and from their house.

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