On February 13, 2017, the Land Court, Scheier, J., issued an Order Denying Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment in Heller v. Conner et al., Land Court Docket No. 15 MISC 0000481 (KFS) in which the court denied a motion for summary judgment against the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Plymouth (the "Board"), and P&A's client, Kingstown Corporation ("Kingstown"). The order rejected the plaintiffs' claim that the failure to mail notice of a zoning hearing to a party-in-interest was a fatal flaw in the public hearing process prescribed by G. L. c. 40A § 11, where that party-in-interest is a plaintiff in the ongoing de novo appeal of the permitting issued through that process.
In run of the mill zoning appeals, the plaintiff must persuade the trial court that a local zoning decision "is based on a legally untenable ground, or is unreasonable, whimsical, capricious or arbitrary" in order to have the local decision annulled. Davis v. Zoning Bd. of Chatham, 52 Mass. App. Ct. 349, 355 (2001), ultimately quoting MacGibbon v. Board of Appeals of Duxbury, 356 Mass. 635, 639 (1970) (quotations omitted). This standard is applied to the particular action of the local board, not the bylaw under which it has acted. In many zoning cases, however, there may be a basis to attack the local bylaw itself, and derivatively the decision of the board, as it is based on a legally-invalid bylaw. This is the first of a series of posts, discussing challenges to zoning bylaws. In this post, the basics of these challenges will be discussed.
On May 13, 2016, the Appeals Court issued its decision in Hanlon v. Town of Sheffield, 89 Mass. App. Ct. 392 (2016), wherein it concluded that in order to regulate "the use and operation of aircraft or [an] airport or restricted landing area" for both commercial and noncommercial private purposes, the Town of Sheffield was required, first, to seek and obtain approval of such regulations from the Aeronautics Division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (the "Aeronautics Division"). The decision gives clarity to an awkwardly framed statute, and fresh hope to aeronautics enthusiasts across the Commonwealth for the establishment of private landing areas for their aircraft. It will also cause headaches for cities and towns around the Commonwealth because their regulatory authority over the use and operation of aircraft or landing areas in their communities is now entirely subject to review and approval by the Aeronautics Division. Municipal regulation, absent such pre-approval, is void.
In my previous post concerning the District Court's decision in Industrial Tower and Wireless, LLC v. Haddad ("ITW v. Haddad"), 2015 WL 2365560 (D. Mass. 2015), I discussed the decision as fitting within a small, but significant, line of cases requiring local boards to base their denial decisions on the specific criteria of the local bylaw. Another noteworthy aspect of ITW v. Haddad is that it is one of the first trial-level decisions to apply the Supreme Court's decision in T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell, Ga., 135 S. Ct. 808 (2015) ("City of Roswell").
It is a basic and oft-cited principle of Massachusetts zoning law that the courts give "'some measure of deference' to the local board's interpretation of its own zoning by-law." Britton v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Gloucester, 59 Mass. App. Ct. 68, 73 (2003), quoting APT Asset Mgmt., Inc. v. Board of Appeals of Melrose, 50 Mass. App. Ct. 133, 138 (2000). The standard for this measure of deference, however, is tautological: the courts "accord deference to a local board's reasonable interpretation of its own zoning bylaw, with the caveat that an 'incorrect interpretation of a statute . . . is not entitled to deference.'" Shirley Wayside Ltd. Partnership v. Board of Appeals of Shirley, 461 Mass. 469, 475 (2012), quoting Atlanticare Med. Ctr. v. Commissioner of the Div. of Med. Assistance, 439 Mass. 1, 6 (2003) (citations omitted). Put differently, deference is given to a local bylaw interpretation when the courts happen to agree with that interpretation. This standard, as one might expect, is not completely conducive to predictable outcomes.