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