Guest Blog Post: Preview of Upcoming Massachusetts Appeals Court Zoning Decisions
The Massachusetts Property Law Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on upcoming zoning decisions from the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Attorney Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at email@example.com.
During the week of October 7, three different panels of the Massachusetts Appeals Court heard three zoning cases, Pecyna v. Town of Dudley, 2018-P-1377, Nimchik v. Chicopee City Council, 2018-P-1024, and Johnson v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Worcester, 2018-P-1425. Real estate and zoning practitioners should follow all three because all three have important procedural and substantive implications.
Pecyna (Meade, Hanlon, and Kinder, J.J.)
Verizon sought to build a cellular tower in Dudley. On August 22, 2017, Verizon successfully obtained a special permit from the Dudley Planning Board. On September 11, 2017, the Pecynas, as self-represented abutters, timely appealed the special permit to the Worcester Superior Court but did not join Verizon as a party. Compare G.L. c. 40A, §17 (Aggrieved party has 20 days to appeal.) Curiously, the Town Clerk issued a certificate of no appeal the next week. As ten months of litigation elapsed, Verizon built the tower.
Later represented by counsel, the Pecynas unsuccessfully sought an injunction to demolish the tower and to belatedly join Verizon as a party. A Superior Court judge denied both motions and dismissed their appeal, reasoning that: (1) because the Town Clerk never received the notice of appeal, the appeal was untimely and (2) belatedly joining Verizon would be prejudicial because Verizon built the tower despite the faulty notice. The Pecynas appealed to the Appeals Court. Curiously, the Town of Dudley did not file a brief-although Verizon appeared and argued as amicus curiae.
This appeal implicates the adequacy of notice of a zoning appeal to a Town Clerk-and presents a follow up to the Appeals Court’s divided 2-1 decision in Hickey last year. Indeed, much of the oral argument focused on the implications of Hickey.
The Pecynas asserted that they notified the town orally that they intended to challenge and appeal the special permit. The Pecynas further asserted that they attempted to file the appeal but the Town Clerk refused to accept it until Day 21-and apparently wanted discovery on that point. By contrast, Verizon asserted that only actual notice suffices, citing much of the caselaw leading to Hickey. Verizon also asserted that the Pecynas forfeited or waived their right to seek discovery on the issue notice by filing a written motion for discovery.
Like Hickey, two compelling doctrines are clashing here. On the one hand, courts demand and enforce strict compliance with the timing and notice provisions of Section 17. Those provisions ensure that Verizon has no encumbrances to building its tower, or conversely, so the Pecynas know about and can challenge it.
On the other hand, there is something unseemly about the Town Clerk refusing to accept appeal paperwork and issuing a certificate of no appeal. If the Town Clerk were a Court Clerk, they would have to accept the appeal papers-even if they thought the appeal was doomed. Compare e.g. Gorod v. Tabachnik, 428 Mass. 1001, 1002 (1998). Dudley also does not have a good record of transparency, i.e., the purpose of notice. Indeed, in 2015, the Attorney General annulled a past decision of the Dudley Planning Board that occurred in violation of the Open Meeting Law.
If the Pecynas have truly preserved their right to seek discovery on notice, a good intermediate solution is for the Appeals Court to remand the case for a hearing on that point-and possibly even retain jurisdiction. The trial judge could weigh whether the prejudice to the Pecynas of having the town thwart their ability to appeal outweighs the prejudice to Verizon of relying on a faulty certificate to build a tower.
Nimchik (Lemire, Singh, and Wendlandt, J.J.)
This case is a challenge to “spot zoning”, i.e., singling out land in a particular area without regard to the general objectives of zoning. More specifically, a building supply company successfully applied to the Chicopee City Council to rezone parcels residential land to business land to facilitate the construction of a garage. This residential neighborhood is west of Route 33 near Westover Air Force Base. That part of Route 33 is, to quote Homer J. Simpson, a “miracle mile where value wears a neon sombrero and there’s not a single church nor cultural institution to offend the eye.” The abutters sued in the Western Housing Court, asserting that the rezoning amounted to unlawful spot zoning. A Judge granted summary judgment for the business and city.
The abutters press on appeal that constructing the large garage and subsequent large truck traffic would be detrimental to the residential neighborhood and only benefits the building supplier and is not a public benefit for zoning. The abutters further contend that the city council’s voting practices to rezone the land were unlawful because there were not enough votes supporting the rezone. Finally, the abutters contend that the judge needed to make express findings of fact resolving the appeal as the judge allowed the motion in a handwritten margin endorsement.
The city and the supplier counter that much of the abutting land is already zoned for business and that the residents will not suffer any detriment. The city and the supplier further argue that the abutters have forfeited or waived any issue on the voting practices by not expressly raising the issue in opposition to summary judgment. Much of the oral arguments focused on this point; Justice Lemire asked counsel for the abutters three different times about how and where this issue appeared below.
Spot zoning, i.e.,, that a municipality has singled out land without regard for the public welfare and purposes of zoning is certainly a serious issue since the Zoning Act requires uniformity-and amounts to a constitutional violation. But, the abutters are carrying a heavy burden to prove not only that there is spot zoning but that there should be a trial. the abutters so See e.g. Van Renselaar v. City of Springfield, 58 Mass. App. Ct. 104, 108 (2003). The abutters’ brief hints that, perhaps, Chicopee could have and should have granted a variance because of unusual land conditions here-indeed, one parcel is triangular. But if the city and the supplier are right about the neighboring land, the motion judge probably correctly resolved the issue at summary judgment.
Johnson (Milkey, Sullivan, and Ditkoff, J.J.)
An ice cream stand owner on Lake Avenue along Lake Quinsingamond in Worcester sought to expand into a full borne fast food restaurant. He sought a special permit and variance for relief from the required parking spaces the Worcester Zoning Code require. Abutters who own property on Lake Avenue (also then self-represented) sued and the Superior Court granted summary judgment for the city and property owner.
On appeal, the abutters assert that by adopting the findings of the zoning board verbatim as their facts in support of summary judgment, which were unsupported, summary judgment was inappropriate. The abutters specifically emphasize that they put forward evidence that the expansion would increase noise, traffic and there is nothing unique about the parcel topographically to justify the variance. Rather, the Board granted the variance because it would be substantially beneficial. The abutters have also pressed that summary judgment was inappropriate in light of how the zoning appeal process is a de novo factual review.
The City counters that the abutters did not oppose their statement of facts. This raised concerns at argument-Justices Sullivan and Ditkoff alike pressed counsel for the city on whether or not there was not factual support. This led to the City’s point that the abutters have waived or forfeited this issue on appeal-and it was too late to challenge that in a motion for reconsideration. Justice Milkey contended that responses to interrogatories were part of the record-and questioned whether or not that fact alone would create a genuine issue of fact. The City continued to harp that the pro se abutters waived it-which drew serious doubt from Justices Milkey and Sullivan. Indeed, Justice Sullivan quite emphatically asked counsel for the city, “Is the city troubled by the notion of making a waiver argument against a pro se taxpayer where the problem was created by the manner in which the city presented its case?”
The verbatim adoption of one party’s statement of facts is not error in and of itself. See e.g. Cormier v. Carty, 381 Mass. 324 (1981) But, those facts are subject to challenge for clear error and reviewing courts will carefully scrutinize those findings. Id. This is also just as much of an issue in zoning cases-the verbatim articulation of the variance standards without factual support for the variance is error. Indeed, a board must make detailed findings to justify a variance. See e.g. Wendy’s Hamburgers v. Board of Appeal of Billerica, 454 Mass. 374, 387 (2009)
If the city did indeed make shoddy findings that do not justify the variance and indeed there is no basis for it, summary judgment is completely inappropriate and a trial should occur. The only question is whether or not the abutters waived or forfeited the issue-and even that is not crystal clear. If the abutters did indeed proffer responses, that should suffice as counter evidence to defeat summary judgment.
All three appeals could rise or fall on the issue of waiver/forfeiture. The waiver/forfeiture rule means that a party cannot raise a legal issue for the first time on appeal that they did not raise in the lower court. To quote Justice John Greaney, the waiver/forfeiture rule exists because “…there is something unseemly about telling a lower court it was wrong when it never was presented with the opportunity to be right.” Commonwealth v. Alphas, 430 Mass. 8, 23 (1999). In criminal cases, the rule is relaxed. But in civil cases, including zoning cases, the rule is hard and harsh-even if the parties are self-represented. As earlier, if the Pecynas did not put the lower court on notice of the Town Clerk gaming the system, their appeal is or may be doomed.
Similarly, in Nimchik, although the validity of the vote to rezone is potentially a serious one, if the abutters did not properly preserve the issue, it’s not fair game on appeal-and neither the lower court nor the appellate court will comb the record to identify it. If there is a question about preservation, lay it out at the outset-or write a compelling a reply brief pointing out how the parties raised and addressed the issue below. Or better yet, avoid the issue of preservation by bringing in appellate counsel to frame and hone the legal issues and write a compelling motion or opposition.
However, in Johnson, if the parties did all they thought they could do to put the lower court on notice of some issue of fact, waiver/forfeiture is completely inappropriate. Indeed, Justice Sullivan made an important point during oral argument that it would not be fair to hold the rule against a self-represented party who tried to put the lower court on notice of an issue that the city did not.
Nimchik and Johnson offer important opportunities to clarify the application of summary judgment to zoning cases. Summary judgment is appropriate when a party’s evidence demonstrates there is no genuine issue of material fact and one party deserves judgment as a matter of law. However, zoning appeals are also de novo proceedings-that is, a court finds completely new facts without regard to how the zoning board found facts. Jury trials are available in Superior Court zoning appeals.
However, nearly 40 years ago, the Supreme Judicial Court specifically endorsed and recognized summary judgment as an appropriate remedy in zoning appeals, even though zoning appeals could be quite “factually complex.”. Framingham Clinic v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Framingham, 382 Mass. 283, 299 (1981). Zoning boards often (tend to) assert that their decisions and findings deserve substantial deference-including on appeals from summary judgments in their favor. This is despite how appellate courts review summary judgment decisions de novo-without deference to the lower court judge.
This tangle also arises in practice. As noted earlier, the abutters/plaintiffs asserted that they wanted express factual findings in both Nimchik and Johnson. But motion judges do not find facts on summary judgment, motion judges determine whether there is some genuine issue of material fact. An express articulation of facts would be better suited for resolving a case on cross-motions for summary judgment to explain why there are no issues of fact and one party or the other is correct as a matter of law. Ideally, the Appeals Court will clarify this tangle and provide substantive guidance to the practicing bar about how to frame and pursue these motions.
Joseph N. Schneiderman has an appellate practice with a particular interest in zoning since he took on the Boston Zoning Board in the Appeals Court. Joe also speaks to the Hampden County Bar AssociatIon’s Real Estate Section about the latest appellate developments. Joe gratefully thanks Adam for another opportunity to blog!