Zoning Judicial Review in Massachusetts

The Appeals Court issued an interesting decision earlier this year concerning some important topics on zoning judicial review in Massachusetts. This decision discusses some of the relevant matters that arise when a zoning decision goes before a court. A copy of the decision, Mancuso v. ZBA of Marblehead, is below.

Zoning Judicial Review 101

In Massachusetts, zoning decisions are primarily made at the local level by various town/city boards and commissions. The most common of these is a zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”) and a planning board.

Zoning boards have wide discretion in the decisions they make. This authority, however, is not unlimited, and such boards can (and many times do) issue decisions that exceed their authority. This is common for variances, where the requirements for such a zoning exemption are detailed and rigorous.

A legal challenge to a zoning decision may be pursued through a court case, where the court is asked to determine the validity of the zoning decision. Such cases are often filed in Land Court or Superior Court.

This Appeals Court decision looked at two important topics for zoning judicial review: (1) a court’s ability to issue zoning board remands and (2) the admissibility of board members’ testimony in such cases.

Zoning Board Remands

When reviewing a zoning decision, a court is not limited to simply upholding or denying the decision. Rather, a court also has the ability to issue a remand to the local zoning board. Such a remand orders the local zoning board to review their prior decision and correct any mistakes in their initial decision.

This is common when the local zoning board failed to consider a relevant factor under the law or did not issue an adequate written decision. After remand, the local zoning board must review the matter again, per the court’s instructions on what mistake or error it must correct.

As noted by the Appeals Court:

Remanding serves the goal of resolving controversies by “giving the board an opportunity to make further findings of fact or to state more fully the reasons for its decision, or . . . to reconsider an application in the light of stated principles different from those on which the board [had] thus far proceeded.” (citation omitted)

This Appeals Court decision underscores that courts have wide latitude in issuing remands for zoning cases. This is an important consideration when deciding to pursue a zoning appeal.

Testimony of Board Members

The Appeals Court also reaffirmed an important zoning judicial review principle: zoning board members’ testimony is generally not permitted in a zoning trial. While a court will certainly consider any written decisions from these local boards, each member’s individual testimony is usually not relevant evidence.

Final Thoughts

If you need assistance with a zoning matter, contact me for a consultation.

mancusozbamarblehead

Appearing Before a Zoning Board: What to Know

Appearing before a zoning board is often required when a property owner is seeking a specific use of their property, or wishes to appeal a decision of a town or city building department. Unlike courts, where most parties are represented by attorneys, it is common for individuals to appear on their own behalf before a zoning board (although having an attorney can help in many cases).

Here, I want to offer some advice on appearing before a zoning board in Massachusetts.

What Are the Zoning Boards in Massachusetts?

The two most common zoning boards in Massachusetts are the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) and the Planning Board. Each town or city has different rules on the specific zoning relief that each of these boards can consider.

Some towns and cities also have zoning decisions heard by the city council or selectboard. Boston has its own, unique system of zoning decision making.

Know What Is Required For What You Are Seeking

Zoning requests have different requirements that an applicant must satisfy. Simply explaining why you want the zoning relief is generally not enough; an applicant must show why their request meets each of the requirements.

Variances have detailed requirements which are generally uniform for all Massachusetts cities and towns. Special permit requirements are often unique for each individual jurisdiction.

Put It In Writing

A good piece of advice on appearing before a zoning board is what you can do before the meeting. You should consider submitting a letter to the board, in advance, that explains what you are looking for and why you meet each of the zoning requirements.

Doing this before the meeting will give the board members time to review your request in advance.

Seek the Support of Abutters

Often, a zoning request can implicate the rights of persons living near the property, known as abutters. Because of this, zoning boards often like to hear that abutters have no objection to the zoning request before them.

If you can, try to obtain a letter of support from such abutters or, even better, ask them to appear at the meeting on your behalf. If an abutter has concerns about the zoning relief you are seeking, try to work this out with them in advance.

Understand the Appeals Process

Anyone aggrieved by a zoning decision has the right to appeal. Such appeals, however, generally come with an extremely tight deadline. If you find yourself having to appeal, be sure to pay close attention to the timing of when the appeal must be filed. You should also consider obtaining an attorney, as zoning appeals can be complicated.

Final Thoughts

Zoning is an incredibly important topic for property owners in Massachusetts. If you find yourself in need of assistance with such a matter, contact me for a consultation.

Requirement #3 for a Massachusetts Variance: Substantial Detriment

Massachusetts variance

This is a three part blog series on the requirements for obtaining a variance under Massachusetts zoning law.  The first post concerned the first variance criterion: a showing that the property has unique conditions. The second post discussed the requirement of hardship. This final post discusses the final requirement: that the variance will not substantially harm public good or substantially derogate from the bylaw’s purpose.

Overview

Obtaining a Massachusetts variance requires a showing of three distinct requirements; all of which a petitioner must satisfy:

[O]wing to circumstances relating to the soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures and especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located, a literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance or by-law would involve substantial hardship, financial or otherwise, to the petitioner or appellant, and that desirable relief may be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and without nullifying or substantially derogating from the intent or purpose of such ordinance or by-law.

G.L. c. 40A, § 10

This third requirement requires consideration of how the requested variance fits in with the local community and zoning ordinances. Even if a petitioner meets the first two variance requirements, the permit granting authority has discretion to deny a variance under this third criterion.

Practical Implications for a Massachusetts Variance

Compared to the first two variance requirements, there are not as many court decisions interpreting this criterion. Generally, if a petitioner can make a good case for the first two requirements, they can generally meet this final criterion.

Nonetheless, a party seeking a Massachusetts variance should not ignore this last requirement. Rather, they should make a case that their variance is keeping with the purpose of the zoning ordinances, and will not cause harm to anyone else. Obtaining the written support of those who are living in the vicinity of the property can often be helpful in making such an argument.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a zoning matter, contact me for a consultation.

Appealing a Variance in Massachusetts

Appealing a Variance in Massachusetts

Like most states, zoning decisions in Massachusetts are primarily made at the local level through municipal boards.  One of the most common types of zoning decisions are requests for variances. While a municipal board (commonly called the zoning board of appeals in most towns and cities) decides whether to grant a variance, such a decision can be appealed.

What is a Variance?

A variance is an exemption from a zoning requirement. Zoning ordinances regulate how a landowner may use their property, which typically includes regulations on the allowed uses and activities.

A property owner has a right to seek an exemption from a zoning requirement by applying through a variance. A variance requires the following:

[T]hat owing to circumstances relating to the soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures and especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located, a literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance or by-law would involve substantial hardship, financial or otherwise, to the petitioner or appellant, and that desirable relief may be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and without nullifying or substantially derogating from the intent or purpose of such ordinance or by-law.

In short, a variance requires that the property have something unique about it, and due to this condition, the property owner will suffer hardship if forced to comply with the zoning ordinance.

Appealing a Variance

The local zoning board generally decides to grant a variance of appeals (“ZBA”). Such decisions are made at open public meetings, with community members permitted to speak in favor or opposition to the request. After a decision is made, the ZBA issues a written decision stating its reasons for approval or denial.

A party aggrieved by a variance decision has a right to appeal. Such an appeal is made to either Superior Court or, most commonly, to Land Court. In such an appeal, the court hears all evidence about the variance and decides to uphold or deny the variance.

Practical Implications

What’s the most important thing to know about appealing a variance? Act quickly. There is a short deadline for filing such an appeal and a detailed process for doing so. Failure to comply with these requirements can be grounds for immediate dismissal of an appeal.

Not anyone can appeal a variance. Only a person “aggrieved” by such a decision may do so. The issue of whether a person can bring such a claim (known legally as whether the party has standing) needs to be determined carefully. Simply not agreeing with a zoning decision on its own is not enough to bring an appeal.

Appealing a variance requires a thorough knowledge of the applicable law and underlining property. For this reason, one should strongly consider hiring an experienced lawyer for such a matter.

Conclusion

If you need help with a variance, contact me for a consultation.