Challenging a Zoning Decision: SJC Clarifies the Rules
I previously wrote a post about Murchison v. Zoning Board of Appeals, concerning the matter of challenging a zoning decision. This was a decision from the Appeals Court that discussed who can pursue a zoning appeal. Murchison, in essence, held that any zoning decision that affected a density matter was grounds for pursuing a zoning appeal.
This decision was of great concern to many developers and real estate professionals, who worried that the decision would allow anyone to pursue a zoning appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) agreed to review this decision again, and ruled that the party trying to pursue this appeal in Murchison lacked standing to do so.
Challenging a Zoning Decision: Who Is Permitted to File an Appeal?
Massachusetts law allows for appeals of local zoning decisions from zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”), planning boards, and other local zoning agencies. Such an appeal must be filed twenty days after the decision is filed with the city or town clerk.
Challenging a zoning decision requires a party to be aggrieved. In essence, this means that the party will suffer harm from the zoning decision. In legal terms, this is referred to as having standing to pursue the case.
Standing for a zoning appeal is a critical, threshold requirement. If a party lacks standing, the appeal will be dismissed.
Zoning Appeals After Murchison
Murchison concerned one of the common grounds for showing aggrievement: density. Density is often regulated through front and side setback requirements, height limitations, and lot-width restrictions. The purpose of such density restrictions are to prevent overcrowding of properties.
Massachusetts law allows a party to apply for an exemption from a zoning requirement, known as a variance. In limited circumstances, the town or city zoning board can grant such a exemption. If, however, another party is harmed by such a decision, they have a right to appeal.
For example, if a property owner obtains a variance allowing them to build a storage shed closer to their neighbor’s home, the neighbor will likely be able to appeal this decision.
The Appeals Court decision in Murchison (which the SJC overturned) suggested that any violation of a density requirement was grounds for standing. This was contrary to prior decisions, which suggested that a party needed to show some actual harm from the zoning relief. If, for example, the party wishing to appeal was not located near the subject property, the Appeals Court decision suggested that the zoning appeal could still proceed.
The SJC overturned the Appeals Court decision in Murchison the day after the hearing in this matter. I’ve never heard of the SJC ever issuing a decision so quickly, which underscores the importance of this matter.
However, the SJC has not yet issued a written decision on this matter. Until they do, the law on zoning appeals remains unclear.
If you need assistance with a zoning appeal, contact me for a consultation.