Zoning Litigation: Lessons from a Recent Decision
The Massachusetts Property Law Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on a recently Appeals Court decision on the pitfalls of zoning litigation. Attorney Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at email@example.com.
On April 24, 2020, a panel of the Appeals Court (Massing, Desmond, & McDonough, J.J.) decided Bylinski v. Building Commissioner of Douglas, 97 Mass. App. Ct. 1113, Docket No. 18-P-450 (Rule 1:28 decision) and reversed a court order to demolish a cottage for non compliance with the relevant provisions of the zoning act (G.L. c.40A). This otherwise obscure case represents a cautionary tale for all zoning practitioners-it’s the latest chapter of a tortuous 11 year Dickensian odyssey through three trial court departments that has spurred, counting this case, five appeals to the Appeals Court.
Bylinski owns property along Wallum Lake in the rural town of Douglas near the Connecticut and Rhode Island borders. Tusino owns Guaranteed Builders (GBI) and bought the adjoining lot through GBI. In 2008, despite insufficient frontage and setbacks, GBI obtained a permit to build a cottage. Bylinski unsuccessfully requested that the building commissioner revoke the permit and then appealed to the zoning board (“The Board.”)
The Board failed to resolve Bylinski’s appeal within 100 days. By operation of law, the Board constructively revoked GBI’s permit. See G.L. c.40A, §15, 5th par. GBI unsuccessfully appealed that order to the Superior Court. See Guaranteed Builders and Developers v. Haire, et. al., Civil Action No. 0985CV2052 (Super. Ct. Worcester Co., filed September 3, 2009).
Bylinski then filed a mandamus action in the Land Court to compel the building inspector to enforce the zoning bylaw and now revoked building permit. In the meantime, GBI successfully finished building the cottage. GBI then unsuccessfully sought a variance from the frontage requirements and litigated the issue all the way to the Appeals Court. Guaranteed Builders v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Douglas, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 1101, Docket No. 2013-P-948 (Rule 1:28 Decision, Feb. 21, 2014).
At the same time, the Land Court judge dismissed Bylinksi’s petition for mandamus because Bylinski had not exhausted his administrative remedies before. Bylinski appealed the Land Court’s order to the Appeals Court and pursued administrative relief at the same time. While Bylinski’s appeal was pending, the Board sided with him and reversed the building commissioner’s refusal to enforce the zoning bylaw and issued a demolition order.
The demolition order contained curious language-the order did not require the town to demolish GBI’s house. But the order also did not limit Bylinski’s right to seek direct injunctive relief if GBI and Tusino did not demolish the house. GBI unsuccessfully appealed that order to the Uxbridge District Court before appealing to the Appeals Court.
The Appeals Court consolidated and ultimately dismissed Bylinski’s and GBI’s appeals. See Tusino v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Douglas, et. al. 90 Mass. App. Ct. 89 (2016). Specificially, GBI had appealed to the wrong court by appealing directly to the Appeals Court rather than to the Appellate Division of the District Court-and they were out of time to go back there. Since dismissing GBI’s appeal made the demolition order final, Bylinski’s appeal from the Land Court’s denial of mandamus became moot because he obtained all the relief he sought.
Curiously, Bylinski did not seek to enforce the demolition order from the District Court. Rather, Bylinski went back to the Land Court, reopened his case, joined Tusino as a defendant, and sought an injunction to demolish the completed but empty cottage. (The Building Commissioner has never issued an occupancy permit.) In December 2017, a Land Court judge finally ordered that Tusino and GBI demolish the cottage or risk being held in contempt of court. Tusino and GBI appealed and successfully stayed the demolition order.
The Appeals Court’s Most Recent Decision
Preliminarily, the panel resolved two procedural issues. First, the panel reached the merits notwithstanding that there were unresolved claims against parties below and the Land Court judge did not certify an immediate appeal under Mass. R. Civ. Pro. 54(b). Indeed, holding otherwise would needlessly further prolong this case. Second, in a lengthy footnote, the panel held that Bylinski properly and timely joined Tusino. By law, trial courts had authority to join any dispensable to permit the case to proceed and related back to the original pleadings-and thus were not outside any statutes of limitation or repose. See FN7, citing G.L. c.231, §51.
Cleared of that underbrush, the panel considered whether Bylinski, as an individual, could seek an injunction from the Land Court to compel Tusino and GBI to demolish the house. The panel comprehensively reviewed the relevant procedures under the zoning act.
G.L. c. 40A, § 7 permitted any person to request that the building commissioner (or other local official) to enforce the zoning by laws. If the party failed to obtain relief from the building commissioner, the party could appeal to and obtain enforcement orders from the zoning board, same as the building commissioner. G.L. c.40A, §§8, 14. If the party still remained aggrieved, they could then pursue judicial review and broad equitable relief. G.L. c.40A, §17.
Section 7 empowered the Superior Court and the Land Court to enforce zoning bylaws and issue injunctions to remedy bylaw violations. However, Section 7 also contained an important caveat: “no action, suit or proceeding…[or] administrative action or other action…to…compel the removal..of a structure [for violating] a zoning by-law [shall proceed] except in accordance with this section and sections 8 and 17.” This limitation dovetailed with the important principle that there is no private right of action to enforce zoning bylaws-a private citizen cannot go directly to court to enforce the zoning bylaws when a town or city does not.
The case distilled to whether Bylinski had assiduously followed these procedures. The panel concluded he had not. First, Bylinski’s case could not constitute a zoning appeal under Section 17 because he did not perfect the appeal under Section 17. Bylinski already obtained a demolition order from the Board-thus, he was not an aggrieved party who could appeal.
Although the Board’s order suggested that Bylinski himself could compel demolition, by law, only a building inspector or a zoning board could directly enforce zoning bylaws and compel demolition without pursuing administrative remedies. Bylinski had not done so, and thus the Land Court judge could not issue a demolition injunction directly against Tusino on Bylinski’s behalf. However, Bylinski had remedies. First, he could renew his mandamus action in the Land Court against the building commissioner. Second, he could reopen the District Court case where the demolition order issued. Indeed, because Bylinski remained an aggrieved abutter, he could seek repeated requests for enforcement based on changed circumstances.
Are There Too Many Zoning Appellate Forums?
This case illustrates how the breadth of forums for zoning appeals can cause problems. Under G.L. c. 40A, §17, one may appeal a zoning board’s order to either of four trial courts: the District Court (except in Hampden County [Springfield]), the Housing Court, the Land Court, or the Superior Court. As occurred here, parallel actions can arise in any or all of those courts.
This broad choice of forum has also caused serious mischief in the past. In Skawski v. Greenfield Investors Property Development, 473 Mass. 580 (2016), abutters filed a zoning appeal in the Housing Court challenging a large development in Greenfield. The developers sought transfer to the permit session of the Land Court-which the Legislature specifically created to streamline challenges to large developments. 473 Mass. at 582-583 (describing their requests for transfer), and 586-591 citing G.L. c.185, §3A. Nearly five years later, the SJC finally concluded that the abutters erroneously went to the Housing Court but could press their zoning appeal to either the Land Court or the Superior Court. 473 Mass. at 591-593.
Confused yet? It gets better. Until Tusino’s 2016 appeal, all further appeals in zoning cases proceeded uniformly to the Appeals Court, even if they originated in the District Court. Tusino, 90 Mass. App. Ct. at 91, citing Walker v. Board of Appeals of Harwich, 388 Mass. 42 (1983). Indeed, when a litigant can file a case in the District Court or in another trial court, all appeals in that type of case should proceed to the Appeals Court to ensure uniform treatment of litigants. See e.g. Van Liew v. Stansfield, 474 Mass. 31, 34-36 (2016).
But in Tusino, the Appeals Court held that the Legislature effectively overruled Walker by expanding the equity jurisdiction of the District Court and creating the “one trial system” during the 2000’s. 90 Mass. App. Ct. at 91. The Appeals Court reached this result despite their established rule that they do not and cannot overrule the SJC to alter established rules. See e.g. Burke v. Toothaker, 1 Mass. App. Ct. 234, 239 (1973). Put another way, if the SJC incorrectly decided Walker, or if the Legislature overruled Walker, it was up to the SJC and the SJC alone to overrule Walker. This decision also does not ensure uniform treatment of litigants.
If Section 17 commands that zoning appeals “shall have precedence over all other civil actions and proceedings”, the prospect of parallel actions in up to four trial courts with up to three layers of appellate review hardly seems to accomplish that end. Worse, as in Skawski, the issue of zoning appeal forum selection arose twice and two different trial court Chief Justices took no action to resolve it before it reached the SJC. 473 Mass. at 582-583.
How can you avoid forum wrangling? File the zoning appeal in the Land Court or the Superior Court to keep a case before one judge. Indeed, in the Land Court, all cases proceed before one judge for their entire legal lives there. Land Court Standing Order 1-04(B). In the Superior Court, you can seek a special assignment of one judge. See Superior Court Standing Order 9-80. If there are multiple related cases in multiple courts, move to consolidate all your cases into one court pursuant to Trial Court Rule XII. Indeed, there is a presumption of consolidation in cases involving identical parties and issues.
Coordinate with Town Officials
This case also, at best, does not flatter, and at worst, is “a study in mulish behavior” of town officials and town government in Douglas, Darcy v. Hankle, 54 Mass. App. Ct. 846, 847 (2002) (Kass, J.) The Building Inspector allowed Tusino to build his cottage. Ironically, Bylsinki won his appeal by appeal by operation of law because of the Board’s inaction on it. Although the Board denied Tusino’s request for a variance, the Board still did not act to stop him from building the cottage. And, the Board wrote an ambiguous demolition order. Practitioners should be alert to whom they are working with locally and ensure that all interests are aligned. If you are seeking mandamus relief, be sure that the official government has no discretion not to act, with a statue or regulation that reads “shall”-and you have no other remedies.
Seeking Additional Appellate Review of Zoning Decisions
This case also exhibits some perils of taking an appeal. Bylinski could have avoided some appellate review by seeking to stay appellate proceedings to obtain administrative relief. If a party validly entered their appeal, trial courts cannot enter orders that could moot appeals that are pending without leave of an appellate court. Springfield Housing Authority v. Garcia, 44 Mass. App. Ct. 432 (1998) . The same logic should apply to seeking administrative relief.
Moreover, neither party seemed alert to how this appeal was not from a truly final judgment-i.e. that the order resolved all claims against all parties. See e.g. Patel v. Martin 481 Mass. 29, 31-32 (2018). The best practice is to resolve that issue before appealing. The lack of a final judgment is potentially a serious jurisdictional defect. Had this case not dragged out for 11 years, the panel may not have exercised their discretion to decide the appeal.
Finally, this opinion is the latest in an unfortunate prevalence of unpublished opinions. The Appeals Court typically issues unpublished opinions in cases that present “no substantial question of law.” Appeals Court Rule 1:28, soon to be Appeals Court Rule 23.0. These issues do not seem to fit that rule. The question of who had the power to compel demolition seems to arise in an unusual context. A published decision could have clarified that issue as the panel’s decision cites many older cases and practitioners could have benefitted from that.
The end result of an unpublished decision is strange given the timeframe. The panel originally heard this case in January 2019. An April 24, 2020 decision is nearly a year beyond the Appeals Court’s internal guideline to resolve appeals within 130 days of argument.
Granted, cases can last longer under advisement if the Appeals Court will publish it. This is the “second panel” process where every Justice on the Appeals Court reviews the decision-and, if there’s a dissent, the panel may expand. See Sciaba v. City of Boston, 35 Mass. App. Ct. 181, n.1 (1993). But a party cannot compel the full Appeals Court to consider an appeal. Weber v. Appeals Court, 457 Mass. 407 (2010).
Given this background, this case seems like a candidate for further appellate review by the SJC. This case has lasted for 11 years-and the Appeals Court’s decision seems to all but assure further litigation. On practical level, it seems highly wasteful to have an unoccupied cottage taking up space along Wallum Lake because there is no occupancy permit for it-and it’s going to stay that way on remand.
Although allowance of further appellate review may further prolong this case, further appellate review may finally spur a resolution to this case. The SJC tends to expedite matters on FAR. Indeed, historically, the SJC has seemed concerned about zoning matters dragging out-as in Skawski. See also Murchison v. ZBA of Sherborn, SJC-12867, on further appellate review from 96 Mass. App. Ct. 158 (2019), Paper No. 23 (affirming dismissal for lack of standing with an opinion to follow.) As of now (May 31), no application has been filed.
In sum, this decision should operate as a clarion warning for zoning practitioners about how litigation can proliferate out of control. But there are steps practitioners can take to avoid these pitfalls. Moreover, if the SJC does not step in to remedy how these trapdoors opened, the Legislature should-particularly about the breadth of choices of forum in zoning cases.
Joseph N. Schneiderman is an appellate practitioner in Massachusetts and Connecticut with particular affinities for zoning, municipal law, and appellate practice and procedure. Joe recently argued his 20th appeal in his career and Joe gratefully thanks Adam for another opportunity to blog.