The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision this week clarifying who can challenge a zoning decision, and the role of a trial judge in making this inquiry. This decision, Talmo v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Framingham, is included below.
This case started with a Framingham resident applying for a building permit to construct a guest room addition to their home. The City granted the permit, and one of abutters of the property (who lived nearby) sought a zoning enforcement action, essentially arguing that this guest room addition violated the City’s zoning ordinances, and that the City should order this project to stop. The City of Framingham’s Zoning Board of Appeal initially agreed, and stopped the project.
The party wishing to construct this addition changed their plans for this project, and applied again for a building permit, which the City allowed. The abutter sought a similar zoning enforcement action, which the zoning appeals board denied. This abutter then appealed this zoning decision to Land Court.
Who Can Challenge a Zoning Decision?
This case concerns an important question for Massachusetts zoning law: who can challenge a zoning decision?
During the trial for this case, the Land Court observed that this abutter was not in direct proximity to the guest room addition, and had not otherwise identified any real harm that he would suffer from this addition. The Land Court, on its own, subsequently dismissed this case, holding that this abutter lacked standing to pursue this appeal. Simply put, the abutter had “no dog in the fight” because he would not be affected by the guest room addition.
The Appeals Court agreed with the Land Court’s decision. Under Massachusetts law, only a “person aggrieved” by a zoning matter has a right to challenge a zoning decision. The Appeals Court agreed that this abutter did not show how he would be harmed by this zoning decision, and therefore had no grounds for pursuing this case.
An important part of this case was how the Land Court reached this decision. Here, the Land Court made this finding entirely on its own: the opposing party never pursued the issue of standing as a defense to this case. The Appeals Court agreed that in a zoning matter, a trial court could decide on its own that a party lacked standing to pursue such a case. In other words, even if neither party raises this issue, it can still become a determining factor if the trial court is not convinced that a party has adequate standing.
This decision reaffirms that, to challenge a zoning decision, one must have “skin in the game.” Failure to have standing in such a matter can lead to the immediate dismissal of such a case.
Talmo recognizes that a trial court is well within its right to inquire about a party’s aggrieved status on its own . . . even if the opposing side never raises it. The Appeals Court emphasized that the trial court should give fair notice to a party if it is concerned about one’s standing. Nonetheless, standing is a mandatory threshold that one must carefully consider when pursuing a zoning appeal.
Talmo v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Framingham is an example of the importance of having an experienced real estate litigation attorney on your side for a zoning appeal. If you find yourself in need of such help, contact me for a consultation.Talmo v. BOA Framingham