SJC Finds “Plain Language” of the State’s Zoning Law Means Exactly What It Says

Published on: November 22, 2003

Many court battles turn on the precise interpretation of ambiguous and sometimes obscure legal phrases. But sometimes the language of a contract or a statute means precisely what it says. Fortunately for the property owner we represented, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) found the plain language of the statute to be quite clear in a suit questioning whether a parcel of land was exempt from zoning changes enacted after the property was acquired.

The statutory language at issue was the so-called “common lot” provision of Section 6 of Chapter 40A, the grandfather provision of the state zoning law, which exempts qualified lots held in common ownership from zoning changes for five years after the new rules are enacted.

The facts of the case (Fred Marinelli vs. Board of Appeals of Stoughton) were not disputed. Livio Marinelli owned the contested lot (Lot C) and at least three others, all approximately 25,000 sq. ft. in size, located in a Stoughton subdivision. The zoning rules in place when Marinelli acquired the properties required a minimum lot size of 25,000 sq. ft. for the construction of a single-family home. However, in 1996, the town amended its zoning bylaw to increase the minimum lot size requirement to 40,000 sq. ft.

Livio transferred Lot C to a realty trust in February of 1996, but he was still the owner of record when the new zoning rules took effect. A few months later, Livio’s son, Fred, signed a purchase and sale agreement to purchase the lot from the trust, contingent on his ability to obtain a permit to build a single-family home. The Stoughton Building Department denied the permit, claiming the parcel did not meet the new lot size requirements. The city’s Board of Appeals upheld that decision, but the Land Court reversed, ruling that the lot was entitled to grandfather protection under the zoning law and that the old lot size requirement (25,000 sq. ft.) should apply. The board appealed the Land Court decision and the SJC took the case directly on its own motion to resolve the dispute over how the statutory language should be interpreted.

Same Issue, Different Context

Section 6 says the grandfather protection does not apply “to more than three adjoining lots.” The Board of Appeals argued that because Marinelli owned more than three adjoining lots, none were exempt from the zoning change. As it turned out, Land Court Judge Karen Scheier, who heard Marinelli’s appeal, had accepted a similar argument when it arose in a tangential way in a prior case involving eligibility for grandfather protection under Section 6. But she concluded that the argument had been framed differently in the earlier case; in this context, she decided, the plain language of the statute should apply, and that language, she said, permits only one interpretation: Where a plan includes more than three commonly owned lots, only three of them are eligible for grandfather protection.

The SJC agreed with that reading. Writing for the court, Justice Robert J. Cordy explained, “By its plain language, the provision does not exclude owners of four or more lots from the protection of Section 6 outright; it merely limits the number of lots for which any owner can obtain such protection.”

Irregular Results

The appeals board had argued that its more restrictive interpretation reflected a recognition that owners of many lots are better able to configure them to comply with increased lot size requirements. But the SJC countered that the town’s position would produce “irregular and inequitable results – of which this case is a prime example.”

Applying the town’s reasoning, the court noted, if Marinelli had owned four buildable lots originally, he would have had only two buildable lots after the zoning change. But had he owned only three lots initially, all three would have been protected from the new zoning rule. “If the legislature intended such a result, it would have said so with greater clarity,” the court concluded.

Although this is a case of first impression, meaning this is the first time the Massachusetts courts have addressed the question, the SJC’s decision reflects a straightforward interpretation of the statute that is certainly welcome, but not particularly surprising.

A Question of Standing

A secondary finding, although less central to this decision, could have a much greater impact. Among the many arguments the Stoughton appeals board advanced for denying grandfather protection for Lot C, was the contention that Marinelli lacked standing to appeal the zoning rule. According to the board, Marinelli’s purchase and sale agreement was invalid because only one member of the realty trust had signed it. Because he did not own the parcel, the board said, Marinelli was not a “person aggrieved” and thus did not have the required standing to bring his suit.

But the SJC found that Marinelli was entitled to a presumption that he had standing, and thus did not have to prove it. The appeals board, on the other hand, had simply alleged that a single signature on the P&S was inadequate without introducing any evidence to support that contention, “and we decline the board’s invitation to shift the burden of proof to Marinelli,” the court said.

That represents a potentially significant statement about an area of zoning law that has not been entirely clear. It is well established in zoning challenges that a party at interest is presumed to be an aggrieved person. But exactly what the presumption means has always been a bit hazy. Here, the SJC has stated that the facts advanced as the basis for a party’s standing are presumed to be true. In this case, it was the validity of the P&S and Marinelli’s ownership of the lot that merited the presumption. As a result, he did not have to prove the validity of the P&S agreement; rather, the appeals board had to introduce facts that would allow an independent fact finder to conclude the P&S agreement was invalid, which the board failed to do.

Applying this principle to a different situation, an abutter who challenges a proposed development based on the noise it would generate can simply assert that the noise will be problematic. Under the argument the SJC endorsed here for establishing standing, the courts will presume the existence of the noise injury; it will be up to the developer to introduce evidence warranting a finding that the abutter will not suffer the noise impacts alleged.

It is difficult to predict just how far this reasoning will extend, but the SJC seems to have clarified that a developer seeking to rebut the presumption of standing will have the heightened burden of demonstrating that a project will not cause the injuries that opponents may have alleged.