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Massachusetts Land Court Allows Exception to Setback Requirement Under Local Zoning Bylaw

In Massachusetts, land owners may file a petition in Land Court to determine the validity of, or the extent to which, a zoning bylaw or land use ordinance may affect the use, improvement, or development of their land.  In a July 1, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff brought an action against his town, seeking a declaration as to how its zoning bylaw applied to his property.  Because the issue turned on undisputed facts, the Land Court decided the case on summary judgment.

The local ordinance at issue required that any type of residence must be setback at least 10 feet from a property line and at least 20 feet from the street.  However, an exception was provided for properties with existing buildings, if they were located less than 10 feet from the property line, or less than 20 feet from the street.  Such properties are allowed a setback equal to that of the nearer building line, as established by the existing buildings.

The plaintiff in the case owned property with an existing house and barn, among other structures.  Having reportedly been granted approval to divide his property into six single-family lots, the plaintiff wanted greater flexibility to develop the 6.5-acre property.  Correspondingly, if the bylaw exception applied, he would not be restrained by the 10-foot property line and 20-foot street setback requirements.  The issue in the case, therefore, was whether the house and barn created a nearer “building line” under the bylaw, thus exempting the plaintiff’s property from the bylaw’s setback requirements.

The plaintiff argued that the term “building line” meant the line formed by the side of an existing building that faces the street and running along the faces of the other existing buildings.  In response, the town contended that the bylaw exception for a nearer building line applied only in situations where two or more lots had existing buildings less than the setback requirements.

The Land Court determined the meaning of the bylaw by first looking to the statutory language and then relevant case law.  Although the bylaws did not define “building line,” the court found the plaintiff’s interpretation to be more persuasive.  The court also cited to a prior case in which the setback exception was allowed for a specific property and did not require multiple lots to have the same nonconformity.  Unwilling to find that the case was wrongly decided, the court used the same rationale to apply the bylaw in the instant case.  Accordingly, the Land Court entered a judgment for the plaintiff, concluding that the setback exception applied to the plaintiff’s property and provided for a nearer building line established by the existing house and barn.

At Pulgini & Norton, our Massachusetts real estate lawyers can offer guidance and legal representation regarding any residential property issue you may have.  We have experience in handling purchase and sales agreements, zoning and land use matters, title actions, tax liens, foreclosure cases, and many other types of residential property transactions.  Schedule a free initial consultation by contacting Pulgini & Norton by phone at (781) 843-2200 or online.

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