NOTE: The decision discussed in this blog post has been overruled by a later Supreme Judicial Court decision. Read about it here.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision last month on who can appeal a zoning decision. This decision clarifies that overcrowding concerns related to zoning approval are adequate grounds for giving a party a right to appeal one of these decisions. The full decision, Murchison v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Sherborn, is included below.
Zoning are local regulations on the use of real property. These ordinances generally regulate the size, dimension, and uses of property, and are enacted by individual towns and cities across Massachusetts.
Often, certain desired uses of property require specific approval from the local municipality, such as a special permit or site plan review. A property owner, in most cases, is also entitled to apply for an exception to a zoning regulation, known as a variance.
Zoning decisions are generally made by a town or city’s zoning board of appeals or planning board. A party who is not happy with one of these decisions has the option of pursuing an appeal of such a decision in court.
Who Can Appeal a Zoning Decision in Massachusetts?
Not anyone can appeal a zoning decision. The law only allows a “person aggrieved” to bring an appeal. This is a critical, threshold requirement that must be satisfied for any zoning appeal.
There is a practical reason for this requirement. It would be unfair to allow a person who has no stake in the zoning outcome to get involved in one of these decisions. This requirement is similar to nearly every other civil lawsuit: one must show they have a “dog in the fight” to pursue a legal matter.
How Can Someone Show They Are a “Person Aggrieved”?
Arguably the most common basis for showing standing is a density concern (also known as overcrowding). The claimed harm is that the zoning relief will result in the construction of a building (or a use of land) that is larger or closer than what the zoning regulations intend for.
In Murchinson, the Appeals Court needed to determine the extent to which a party needed to show a density concern for the purposes of establishing standing. In this case, the claimant bringing the zoning appeal lived across the street from a proposed development, which was seeking zoning approval to construct a development without the town’s minimum lot width.
Minimum lot width is a density zoning regulation, aimed at preventing homes and building from being constructed too close to each other. In Murchinson, the proposed development would have only slightly violated this regulation. Based on this, the zoning appeal was dismissed, on the grounds that any alleged harm of overcrowding was de minimis (minor).
Murchison reversed this holding, by ruling the following:
There is no platonic ideal of overcrowding against which the plaintiffs’ claim is to be measured. Although the distance between the houses might not amount to overcrowding in an urban area . . . cities and towns are free to make legislative judgments about what level of density constitutes harm in various zoning districts and to codify those judgments in bylaws. It does not matter whether we, or a trial judge, or the defendants, or their counsel, would consider the district “overcrowded.” What matters is what the town has determined.
Prior zoning decisions suggest that not every concern about overcrowding can constitute standing for a zoning appeal. If the potential harm from the zoning relief is minor, previous cases seem to imply that minor harm, alone, is not enough for a zoning appeal.
Murchison, in my opinion, leaves that decision entirely up to the town or city’s zoning ordinance. If a town or city regulates density in any way, any zoning decision that results in a change to such density is grounds for standing.
Of course, simply having standing is not enough to overturn a zoning decision. Standing simply allows a person to have their day in court on such a matter.
If you need assistance with a zoning matter, contact me for a consultation.