Articles Posted in Land Use

In some situations, nearby property owners have the right to object to decisions made by local zoning boards.  These cases typically involve interpreting deeds and applying the real property laws of Massachusetts and local bylaws.  In an October 5, 2017 case, the Massachusetts Land Court considered a challenge brought by plaintiffs against a property management company after the local zoning board granted a variance to the defendants, allowing an otherwise prohibited two-family dwelling use on an undersized lot.  One of the issues for the court was whether the defendants took title to the lot subject to all easements, restrictions, and rights contained in the recorded deeds, or whether the restrictions had expired pursuant to law.

The lot at issue in the case was originally part of a larger parcel that was conveyed in 1925 subject to several restrictions, one of which prohibited more than one single-family house and garage.  The parcel was thereafter subdivided into lots, which were sold individually and made subject to the original restrictions by deed.  The lot at issue was subsequently conveyed to various owners until the defendants acquired it in 2011.  The deed provided that the lot was subject to the same restrictions and easements as the prior deeds.  It did not provide any time limits on the restrictions.  The defendants sought a variance to authorize two-family dwelling use and deviate from minimum lot size requirements, which was granted by the local zoning board.

The plaintiffs in the case owned one of the other lots in the original parcel.  They argued that the deed restriction limiting the lot to single-family dwelling use remained valid and enforceable.  The defendants contended that the single-family use restriction originally imposed in 1925 had expired pursuant to Massachusetts G.L. 184 § 28.  The statute provides that any restriction imposed before 1962 is not enforceable after 50 years, unless a Notice of Restriction has been recorded to extend enforceability beyond the 50-year period.

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Massachusetts state and local zoning laws generally have the most direct impact on how land can be used, but in some cases, constitutional issues may arise.  An October 18, 2017 case illustrates a Massachusetts land use matter challenged by town residents on the basis of the Massachusetts Constitution.  The local planning board had granted site plan approval to a company for the construction of a solar panel facility on a portion of the town’s property, which the company leased from the town.  The plaintiffs alleged that the property at issue was protected by the state constitution, and, therefore, a two-thirds vote in the Massachusetts Legislature was required before it could lease out the land.  The main issue in the case, therefore, was whether the town violated the Massachusetts Constitution by leasing town-owned land for use as a solar-powered electricity generation facility.

Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution protects the right of the people to the conservation, development, and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air, and other natural resources.  Lands and easements taken or acquired for these purposes cannot be used for other purposes, or otherwise disposed of except by laws enacted by a two-thirds vote of the Massachusetts Legislature.  The question for the court in such cases is whether the land was taken for a purpose consistent with Article 97, or later designated as such.  If land was taken for more than one use, or just incidentally serves the purposes enumerated in Article 97, the requirements of Article 97 do not apply.

In the case, the town had originally taken title to the property at issue pursuant to a deed, which provided that the land was conveyed to the town for the purposes of protection of water resources and other compatible purposes, including conservation and recreation.  The plaintiffs contended this language triggered the protections of Article 97.  The town argued that the language did not designate the property solely for the purposes protected by Article 97 because it may be used for “other compatible purposes.”

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Land used by many members of the community, such as parks and other recreational public property, is subject to zoning regulations and other laws that may apply. In an October 2, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case, the Supreme Judicial Court considered an action brought against a city by its residents, who sought a restraining order to prevent construction of a new school on land that was used as a playground.

The land at issue had served as a public park for more than 60 years since it was created and formally approved by the city in 1957. In 1979, the city received a grant from the federal government to rehabilitate the playground in the park. The law authorizing the grant imposed a requirement that any property developed with grant assistance could not be converted to any use other than public outdoor recreation without the approval of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. In 2011, the city council voted to transfer the playground from the parks and recreation department to its school department to construct a new elementary school on the land. A group of city residents commenced an action to halt the construction project, arguing that the land and the playground could not be used for any other purpose.

Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution provides that land and easements taken by eminent domain for conservation purposes cannot be used for any other purpose or disposed of without approval from the Legislature. Massachusetts courts have held that land dedicated as a public park is protected by Article 97, even if it was not taken by eminent domain or subject to a recorded restriction limiting its use. A city dedicates land as a public park under Article 97 when there is a clear and unequivocal intent to dedicate the land permanently as a public park, and when the public accepts such use by actually using the land as a public park. Since the municipal land at issue was dedicated as a public park, the court concluded that the land was protected by Article 97.

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Massachusetts zoning laws regulate the manner and extent to which property can be used.  An August 18, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case brought before the Land Court illustrates a land use dispute involving neighboring homeowners.  One of the homeowners had requested that the town’s building commissioner take a zoning enforcement action against his neighbor, who operated a contracting business.  When the building commissioner denied his request, the homeowner appealed to the local zoning board of appeals, which found that the neighbor’s activities did violate use regulations.  The neighbor appealed the board’s decision to the Land Court.

The parties in the case lived in a Single Residence zoning district, where bylaws prohibited most commercial activities.  Despite the bylaws, the neighbor and his crew regularly parked numerous commercial vehicles at his property, gathered for meetings outside, and effectively used his yard as a contractors’ storage yard.  The homeowner who lived next door found these activities to be particularly disruptive, as did the rest of the neighborhood.

The Land Court found that many of the activities on the neighbor’s property were commercial in nature and prohibited under the bylaw.  The neighbor, however, argued that his property had, as an accessory use, a home occupation.  The local bylaw defined accessory use as that which is clearly subordinate and incidental to the principal building or use and, significantly, does not alter the character of the premises.  A customary home occupation, using one or more rooms for an office or studio, is a permissible accessory use under the bylaw, as long as no more than two people are regularly employed, the residential appearance and character of the premises are preserved, advertising on the premises is limited, and no sales are regularly conducted unless incidental to the accessory use.

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Massachusetts real estate disputes often arise when property owners feel that changes proposed by other landowners would adversely affect their property rights. In a July 26, 2017 case, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts considered whether a local planning board properly approved a modification of a 1947 subdivision plan that abandoned a portion of one road and replaced it with an easement.

The defendants in the case had sought the modification from the planning board in order to advance the commercial development of properties owned by the defendants along the subdivision road at issue. Upon the board’s approval to change the subdivision road to an easement, the defendants could then combine their lots and eliminate some of the zoning restrictions they faced.

The plaintiffs in the case were residential owners of lots that abutted the subdivision road from the north. They appealed the planning board’s decision to allow the defendants’ proposed modification, objecting to the changes. The Land Court ultimately affirmed the board’s approval, concluding that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate any harm affecting their lots from the discontinuation of a portion of the road and change to an easement. The plaintiffs subsequently brought their appeal to the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

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In a July 7, 2017 decision, the Massachusetts Land Court addressed a real estate dispute between condominium owners over their respective rights to access certain areas of the property. The parties were unit owners in a two-unit, residential condo. The plaintiffs in the case sought to prevent the defendants from installing a fence they claimed would prevent them from accessing and using land in which they have exclusive rights. The plaintiffs also requested recognition of an implied easement by necessity over a portion of the condominium common area, which had been designated for the exclusive use of the defendants’ unit. 

The land court first looked at the site plan of the master deed to determine the rights of the parties. The plan provided that the exclusive rights area for the plaintiffs’ unit included a portion of the front yard, including the parking area for that unit, and continued along the side of the condo building, narrowing where it runs parallel to the defendants’ exclusive rights area directly behind the building, and opening to the rearmost portion of the plaintiffs’ exclusive rights area at the far southern end of the property. The plan depicted the defendants’ exclusive rights area as covering the remainder of the property, including the yard area directly behind the building.

When the defendants informed the plaintiffs of their intention to remove the existing stairs and install a fence around the backyard portion of their exclusive rights area, the plaintiffs objected, asserting that the changes would prevent them from accessing their own rear yard. After reviewing the master deed, the land court concluded that the defendants were within their rights under the deed to install the fence and remove the stairs located on their exclusive area. The land court also ruled that the defendants’ actions did not violate the plaintiffs’ rights under the deed because they did not infringe on the plaintiffs’ exclusive area nor the common areas of the property.

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Land use and zoning laws regulate how people and businesses can use and build upon their property.  Property owners are not completely restricted, however, and may seek approval from the local government of plans that do not conform with the laws.  In a June 22, 2017 case, the Massachusetts Land Court determined whether a special permit was properly granted to the defendants by a zoning board.  The defendants in the case sought to demolish a pre-existing, non-conforming dwelling and build a new house on their property.  After the zoning board approved the plan, the plaintiff challenged the decision by filing an appeal.

In 2014, the plaintiff had sold the lot to the defendants, which was located next door and downhill from the plaintiff’s property.  The defendants sought to raze the small one-story house on the lot and construct a much larger and taller two-story house.  The plaintiff contended that the view from her property would be diminished and result in a loss of privacy, due to the second-story windows planned for the defendants’ new house.  The plaintiff also presented witness testimony that the value of her property would decrease.

After finding that the plaintiff had standing to challenge the zoning board decision, the land court addressed the merits of the appeal.  The bylaw at issue provided that non-conforming single-family residential structures, as here, may be altered if:  (1) the alteration will not increase the non-conforming nature of the structure; or (2) the alteration will increase the non-conforming nature of the structure, but the zoning board determines that the alteration is not substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the existing structure and issues a special permit.

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Before someone can challenge the validity of a permit issued to another landowner, that person must have legal standing.  In a June 12, 2017 case, the issue for the Massachusetts Land Court was whether a plaintiff who lived across from the defendant’s property had standing to appeal a special permit granted to the defendant by the local zoning board.  The special permit allowed the defendant to construct a four-unit residential building in a zone where three-unit buildings are allowed as of right and where larger buildings require a special permit.

The defendant in the case was a real estate developer that purchased property located across the street from the plaintiff’s house.  The defendant sought a special permit to tear down the existing single-family home on the property and replace it with a single structure containing four residential units.  After the zoning board granted the permit, the plaintiff appealed, alleging that she would  be negatively affected by traffic and fire vehicle access that will result from the proposed development.

In order to have standing to challenge the defendant’s zoning permit, the plaintiff must be “aggrieved” as defined by law.  People entitled to notice of the permit are entitled to a rebuttable presumption that they are aggrieved.  In the case, the plaintiff was an abutter to an abutter within 300 feet of the defendant’s property, and as a result, she was entitled to the presumption that she is aggrieved.

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If a zoning board decision affects other adjoining or nearby landowners, they may be able to appeal the ruling.  The Massachusetts Land Court reviewed a case on June 7, 2017 in which the defendants had obtained approval from the local zoning board to tear down a lawfully nonconforming garage on their property and replace it with a larger, single-family home.  The plaintiffs, who lived on a parcel of land abutting the defendants’ property, appealed the zoning board’s grant of a special permit and variances authorizing the plan.

After determining that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the appeal, the land court turned to the question of whether the special permit had been properly issued.  The defendants in the case requested relief from the off-street parking requirements of a local ordinance, which required a 20-foot driveway to accompany parking facilities within the ground floor of a structure.  Pursuant to local laws, the zoning board is authorized to waive this requirement by issuing a special permit, if the board finds that the reduction is not inconsistent with public health and safety or that the reduction promotes a public benefit.

After reviewing the zoning board’s written determination, the land court found that, despite the lack of an explicit finding that the defendants’ proposal was not inconsistent with public health and safety or that the reduction promotes a public benefit, the standard was implicitly applied when the zoning board considered traffic flow and safety and stated that it did not foresee the location and the size of the site as having a significant negative impact.  The land court concluded that the board employed an evaluation that was functionally identical to that mandated by the ordinance regarding parking waivers.

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Before making changes to an existing building or constructing a new one, property owners may have to obtain approval from the local government. In a May 30, 2017 case, the Massachusetts Land Court reviewed a zoning board decision granting a variance to the defendants for the construction of a new house on their vacant lot. The plaintiffs appealed the variance, which would allow the defendants’ house to be 15 feet closer to the plaintiffs’ property than permitted by the setback.

The defendants in the case owned two lots that were conveyed to them by a single deed in 1986. The defendants had built a house on one of the lots, while the other lot remained undeveloped. The plaintiffs in the case resided in a house located next to the defendants’ vacant lot. The vacant lot was oddly configured, making improvement of the property difficult due to its unique shape and the presence of wetlands. The zoning board ultimately granted the variance, finding that these factors created a hardship to the defendants that justified relief in order for them to develop the property. On appeal, the plaintiffs claimed that the proper requirements for issuing a variance were not met, and as a result of the variance, they would suffer from increased density, reduction in privacy, loss of view, decrease in property value, safety infringements, and instability to their property.

The primary issue for the land court was whether the two lots owned by the defendants had merged for the purposes of zoning, which would result in the loss of grandfathered status and subject the property to the contiguous upland requirement in order to be buildable. The merger doctrine provides that adjoining land in common ownership must be added to nonconforming land in order to bring it into conformity or reduce the nonconformity. The grandfather provision at issue in the case exempted certain lots from increases in lot area, frontage, width, yard, or depth requirements, protecting owners whose lots previously conformed with zoning requirements. However, the exception was not available to lots held in common ownership with an adjoining lot, which may be combined, or merged, to reduce or eliminate the nonconformity. The bylaw provided that lots held in common ownership are entitled to grandfathering for five years after the effective date of a zoning change, if certain requirements are met, after which the lots are combined or merged to reduce nonconformity.

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