Articles Posted in Land Use

In general, new homes must be constructed pursuant to the current requirements of local Massachusetts real estate zoning bylaws.  Under some circumstances, however, the zoning bylaw may provide for an exception, such as for existing structures.  In an October 7, 2019 opinion, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts considered whether a cottage that had been destroyed by a tornado could be reconstructed under a local bylaw provision for existing structures.

The plaintiff and the defendant in the case were two of the five family members who owned a parcel of land.  The property had contained a non-conforming, 800 square foot seasonal cottage built in 1939 by the previous owners.  In June 2011, the cottage was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through the area.  A dispute arose between the plaintiff, who wished to rebuild the cottage, and the defendant, who wished to maintain the property as open land for private conservation and recreational purposes.

The plaintiff nevertheless contacted the local building commissioner to inquire about a building permit for a new single-family residence.  The building commissioner agreed to allow the residence pursuant to an exception for existing structures under the local bylaw.  The decisions issued by the zoning board and Land Court were appealed and the matter subsequently came before the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

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If someone has interfered with your easement or property rights, you may have legal recourse.  In a September 19, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiffs filed an action against their neighbors in Land Court claiming that their property had the benefit of an easement over their neighbors’ property.  Specifically, the plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment from the court that they had the right to use an existing driveway on the defendants’ property to access their own property, and a restraining order enjoining the defendants from blocking the plaintiff’s access to their property.

The plaintiffs in the case asserted that their right to use the defendant’s driveway was based on a recorded easement, a prescriptive easement, and/or an easement by necessity.  With regard to the plaintiffs’ claim to a recorded easement, the court held that the deed presented in support of their argument was ineffective to create an express easement.  The court explained that, although both parties’ properties were held under common ownership originally, at the time the grantor purported to convey the right of way at issue, he did not own the defendant’s property.  As one cannot convey a property right that one does not own, the court ruled that no express easement was created by deed.

The court next addressed the plaintiffs’ claimed easement by necessity.  In Massachusetts, an easement by necessity requires the following elements: (1) unity of title; (2) severance of that unity by a conveyance; and (3) necessity arising from the severance, most often when a lot becomes landlocked.  The court noted that the deed severing the parties’ properties granted an express easement that provided access to the plaintiff’s property, although one was never constructed.  Nevertheless, the court held that the plaintiffs did not present any additional evidence that access over the defendants’ driveway was reasonably necessary.

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There are several ways in which limitations may be imposed in Massachusetts property rights matters.  Some examples include local zoning bylaws, which may regulate aspects such as how far a structure must be set back from the street, and public easements, which may prevent the property owner from blocking off access with a privacy fence.  Deed restrictions are another means by which property use may be restricted, as in a September 12, 2019 Massachusetts property case decided by the Appeals Court.

The prior owner of the plaintiff’s land had received property from the city as part of its “Yard Sale” program.  Through the program, the city conveyed vacant lots to the owners of the abutting property, subject to an open space restriction.  Accordingly, the deed required that the land be used for open space purposes and prohibited construction of new structures on the lot.  The owners of the restricted lots were, however, allowed to build an addition on the house located on their original lot.

When the plaintiff purchased the lot from the prior owner in 2010, the deed conveying the property contained the same building restrictions.  Seeking to remove the restriction, the plaintiff filed an action for a declaratory judgment in Land Court, seeking to remove a restriction placed on her property.  The plaintiff argued that the deed restrictions violated public policy because they imposed an unreasonable restraint on alienation.  The Land Court disagreed and granted summary judgment against the plaintiff; the matter then came before the appeals court.

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If you are planning to construct a new home on your recently purchased property, a Massachusetts real estate attorney can guide you through the legal process.  Typically, new residential construction is subject to local zoning laws, illustrated in a September 16, 2019 case.

The plaintiffs in the case had reportedly applied for a building permit in 2008 to construct a single-family residence on their land.  The town building commissioner denied that permit and, after exhausting their appeals with the local zoning board and Massachusetts Land Court, the plaintiffs revised their plans.  In 2018, they reapplied for a permit using the revised plans.  When the 2018 permit was denied for a second time, the plaintiffs once again sought review of the decision in the Land Court.

Under the local zoning bylaws, a building or structure in a residential district must be at least 60 feet from the street.  There is an exception, however, if there is a principal building within 500 feet of, and on each side, of the proposed building.  In such cases, the proposed building may extend as far as the neighboring buildings.

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A restrictive covenant is a binding legal obligation that relates to the use of the land.  Typically, restrictive covenants are written into the real estate deed to the property.  In some situations, a plaintiff may sue to enforce a covenant against the owner of property subject to a restrictive covenant, as in an August 9, 2019 Massachusetts property case.

Both of the parties in the case resided in a subdivision abutting a country club and golf course.  When the homes were sold, the subdivision developer imposed a No Pools Restriction on the lots. The defendant knew about the restriction when he bought the property but began building a pool anyway.  The plaintiff filed a lawsuit in Land Court to enforce the restrictive covenant and enjoin the defendant from completing the pool.

In Massachusetts, although landowners are not precluded from bargaining for and enforcing beneficial land use restrictions, restrictions on land are generally disfavored.  To promote the reasonable use of land and increase the marketability of land impaired by obsolete restrictions, Massachusetts has enacted a statute that limits the right to enforce restrictive covenants on real property.  The defendants in the case agreed that their property was subject to a restrictive covenant but argued that this statute applied to prevent the plaintiff from enforcing the restriction at issue.

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Constructing a dwelling on a vacant lot usually involves some legal considerations, as well as approval from the local Massachusetts zoning authority.  Individuals who are denied a building permit may appeal to ensure that the matter was correctly decided under the law.  In a June 3, 2019 Massachusetts property case, the plaintiff brought an appeal before the Land Court after she was denied a building permit to construct a single-family home on her land.  The central issue in the case was whether the doctrine of merger precluded her lot from being treated as a preexisting, nonconforming lot exempt from local zoning ordinances.

The plaintiff’s lot was conveyed to her by her grandfather, who had also conveyed a second lot to the plaintiff’s sister.  The two lots were divided by a private way that continued through the subdivision.  The local zoning board concluded that the two adjacent lots had merged when they were held under common ownership by the plaintiff’s grandfather.  As such, the zoning board determined that the plaintiff’s lot did not meet the requirements of a preexisting, nonconforming lot.  The zoning board therefore denied the permit, finding that the lot was unbuildable under the requirements of the local ordinance and not subject to any exemption as a preexisting, nonconforming lot.  The plaintiff, in turn, asserted that her lot was entitled to grandfathering protections and argued that the private way running between the lots precluded merger.

Massachusetts law protects some preexisting lots from having to comply with increased area, frontage, width, yard and depth requirements of subsequently enacted zoning ordinances in some situations.  To fall within the exemption provided under the statute, however, the lot may not have been held in common ownership with any adjoining land.  In other words, the lot cannot have merged with any other lot, or it may lose its grandfather status.

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Making a significant change to residential property in Massachusetts typically requires approval from the local zoning authority.  That decision may be subject to several levels of appeals by the homeowners and other parties aggrieved by the outcome.  Proceeding with the changes, despite a pending appeal, may cause complications further down the road, as illustrated in a May 30, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case before the Court of Appeal.

In 2008, the owner sought a building permit to construct a 6,800-square-foot residence on his property overlooking Cape Cod Bay, and to convert the existing cottage into a studio.  The proposal was put forth as an alteration of the existing cottage, which was a pre-existing non-conforming structure.  The permit was approved, but a group of individuals filed multiple appeals.  Nevertheless, the owner began construction of the residence immediately, despite the Land Court’s warning that he was proceeding at his own risk.

In 2011, the Court of Appeals revoked the building permit, holding that as a matter of law, the house could not be considered an alteration of the existing cottage.  After that decision, the local building commissioner issued an order requiring that the house be torn down, which the owner appealed.  Ultimately, the owner and the town settled the matter, and the house was allowed to stand in exchange for a significant cash payment to the town and a multi-million dollar payment characterized as a charitable gift.

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In Massachusetts, certain uses and activities must be permitted under local zoning laws or approved by the proper authority before they are allowed to take place on a specific parcel of property.  In a March 21, 2019 Massachusetts zoning case, the plaintiffs sought to reverse a local decision that prevented them from transporting dirt and fill onto their property.

The plaintiffs in the case operated a farm on several parcels of property that they owned.  From 1990 through 2016, the plaintiffs had gravel removed from one of the parcels, which eventually created a 45-acre, 40-foot deep pit on the property.  The plaintiffs intended to fill the pit with dirt and restore the area in order to grow crops.  They contracted with a hauling company to accept fill from construction projects in and around Boston.  The hauling company was paid by construction sites to take away dirt fill, and the plaintiffs were paid to accept the fill while also having their pit filled in and restored to farming use.

The local building commissioner objected to the arrangement and ordered the plaintiffs to cease and desist all soil importation operations immediately.  The zoning board upheld the commissioner’s order, finding that soil importation was not a permitted use under the local bylaws.  The plaintiffs appealed the decision, and the matter was presented in the Massachusetts Land Court.

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November 4, 2016, Massachusetts voters passed legislation authorizing the legalization, regulation, and taxation of recreational cannabis in Massachusetts.  The Massachusetts statute allows cities and towns to adopt their own ordinances and zoning bylaws imposing reasonable safeguards on the operation of marijuana establishments.  The plaintiffs in a March 7, 2019 case sought a declaration that a general bylaw enacted by their Town, banning all non-medical cannabis uses, was invalid.

The plaintiffs in the case had purchased land in the Town to build an indoor marijuana growing and processing facility shortly after the Massachusetts statute was enacted.  In May of 2018, the Town adopted an amendment to its zoning, bylaw by two-thirds vote, allowing certain recreational marijuana uses in agricultural, industrial, and business districts by special permit.

A group of citizens and neighboring property owners, unhappy with the amendment, sought to rescind it through two articles.  The first article was another amendment to reverse the bylaw, which failed to obtain the required two-thirds majority vote.  The second was a general bylaw to ban all non-medical cannabis uses within the Town, which passed by a majority vote.  The plaintiffs filed an action in Land Court, arguing that the second general bylaw was an improper attempt to amend a use that was already regulated in its zoning bylaw.

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Many of the old homes in Massachusetts were built before the current local zoning bylaws were enacted.  In many situations, the bylaws exempt these homes from a particular regulation by grandfathering them.  In a February 21, 2019 case, the Massachusetts Land Court considered whether a town’s zoning bylaws permanently grandfathered certain uses of a property that existed before the original bylaws were adopted.  The issue would determine whether or not the plaintiffs could build a new two-family dwelling on their lot.

The lot contained an existing two-family house, which had been built in the 1880s.  For many years, and at least since 1950, it had been used as a two-family residence.  In 2010, a fire swept through the house, leaving the building standing but ruining the interior.  Due to the damage, no one had resided in the house for years after the fire, although renovations had sporadically taken place.

The plaintiffs sought to raze the structure and construct a new two-family house.  The property, however, was located in a district zoned for single-family homes only.  While the local zoning bylaw had grandfathered the existing, nonconforming two-family house, in order to build a new non-conforming two-family structure on the property, the plaintiffs needed special approval.

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