Who Can Bring A Zoning Appeal? SJC Reaffirms the Test for Standing in Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA

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by Adam Sherwin

Case Focus

The Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Murchison v. Sherborn Zoning Board of Appeals, 485 Mass. 209 (2020), last year, concerning the test of standing for a G.L. c. 40A, § 17, zoning appeal. This decision, which came after an application for Further Appellate Review (“FAR”) of a published Appeals Court decision, was closely followed by the Massachusetts real estate community. The prior Appeals Court decision–which could be seen as watering down the test for standing–left many real estate professionals concerned that the floodgates would open for zoning appeals.

Murchison is one of the few, if only, times that the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) issued an order affirming the trial court decision the day after oral argument, with a written decision coming some months later. Such a move underscores the high stakes of this decision.

The SJC’s decision in Murchison reaffirms an important principle for establishing standing to pursue a zoning appeal: One cannot appeal simply because they claim a zoning violation has occurred. Rather, a G.L. c. 40A, § 17, appeal requires such a claimant to show particularized harm from the zoning violation.

Background on Chapter 40A

Chapter 40A allows any person “aggrieved” by a zoning decision to appeal the matter through a civil action, which most commonly is filed in Superior Court or Land Court (but can also be filed in Housing Court or District Court).

Judicial review under chapter 40A is a “hybrid” between a trial and an appellate case. Like a trial matter, such a case requires a court to find facts de novo, without deference to the local board hearing. For this reason, it is common in a G.L. c. 40A, § 17, case to have witnesses, exhibits, and other evidence that was never presented at the initial zoning hearing. Following such factfinding, however, a court must give deference to the zoning board’s decision, and uphold it unless the decision is based on a legally untenable ground, or is unreasonable, whimsical, capricious or arbitrary.

The text of G.L. c. 40A, § 17, expressly addresses standing by stating that only a “party aggrieved” from a zoning decision may pursue an appeal. G.L. c. 40A, § 10, further creates a presumption of standing for any abutters located within three hundred feet of the property line of the petitioner seeking the zoning relief.

This presumption, however, can be rebutted by a defendant through a showing that (1) the alleged harm is not a protected interest under the zoning ordinance or (2) credible affirmative evidence exists to refute the presumption. If standing is rebutted, the plaintiff pursuing the zoning appeal bears the burden of showing aggrievement, with the party who received the zoning relief bearing the burden of showing that is entitled to such approval.

G.L. c. 40A, § 17, is largely silent as to what specific harms may constitute aggrievement. The caselaw is clear that this term is not meant to be narrowly construed, and intended to a flexible standard. Aggrievement, however, must be based on a private interest, not one affecting the public as a whole. Common grounds for standing in G.L. c. 40A, § 17, appeals include increased density, loss of privacy, and traffic concerns.

Case Background

The plaintiffs in Murchison, homeowners in Sherborn, challenged a decision of the local zoning officer to grant a foundation permit for a single-family residential home across the street from their property. They argued that this home lacked the necessary minimum lot width for such a permit.

The plaintiffs filed a claim with the Town of Sherborn’s Zoning Board of Appeals, seeking review of the zoning officer’s decision–a required step for anyone challenging a local zoning decision. After the ZBA upheld the zoning officer’s decision, the plaintiffs filed an appeal in the Land Court pursuant to G.L. c. 40A, § 17.

Because the plaintiffs were abutters to their neighbor’s property, they enjoyed the rebuttable presumption of standing under G.L. c. 40A, § 11. Following a trial, however, the Land Court ruled that the defendants had rebutted this presumption, largely through expert testimony, and that the plaintiffs were not aggrieved by the ZBA’s decision.

On the merits, Land Court found that the alleged harm to the plaintiffs was de minimis. A key factor for this decision was that the plaintiffs’ home was across the street from proposed development, which rendered the plaintiffs’ concerns about lighting, traffic, and noise applicable to the community as a whole, rather than particularly to themselves. The plaintiffs appealed.

Appeals Court Decision

The Appeals Court, in a published decision, reversed the Land Court decision. 96 Mass. App. Ct. 158 (2019). The Appeals Court noted that the minimum lot width requirement was a zoning ordinance aimed at preventing overcrowding. Because of this, the Appeals Court reasoned, any increase in density was, on its own, enough to prove aggrievement.

The Appeals Court reasoned that determining one’s “harm” for a G.L. c. 40A, § 17, appeal comes directly from the applicable zoning ordinance:

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, absent some constitutional concern, which the defendants do not argue exists in this case, 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.

The Appeals Court rejected the argument that the Murchison plaintiffs needed to do anything further to show particularized harm. This was in contrast to the Land Court decision and prior caselaw, which required such plaintiffs to do more than simply note that a zoning violation occurred. The Supreme Judicial Court then granted an application for FAR.

SJC Decision

The SJC reversed the Appeals Court and upheld the Land Court’s decision that the plaintiffs lacked standing for a zoning appeal.

In doing, the SJC reaffirmed a central tenet for determining one’s standing for a G.L. c. 40A, § 17, appeal: “establishing standing requires a plaintiff to do more than merely allege a zoning violation.” 485 Mass. at 214.

As the SJC noted, the Murchison plaintiffs needed to demonstrate that they themselves would be impacted by the zoning relief, such as a showing that the development interfered with a view, reduced light or air, or interfered with their privacy.

While the Appeals Court was willing to determine standing mostly based upon a local municipality’s zoning ordinance alone, the Supreme Judicial Court clarified that a failure to comply with zoning, on its own, does not establish aggrievement. 

Implications of Murchison

Murchison did not chart a new course for determining standing in a G.L. c. 40A, § 17, appeal. Rather, Murchison largely reaffirmed prior caselaw on standing, by emphasizing the importance of showing one’s individual harm as grounds for aggrievement.  

Murchison, however, does reemphasize the tension in resolving such inquiries. Everyone involved in a real estate dispute is familiar with the old adage that “all property is unique.” Consequently, what one property owner considers as an important protection from a zoning ordinance may not be the same as another. In other words, while Land Court might deem the Murchison plaintiffs’ concerns about their neighbor’s minimum lot width to be de minimis, such a determination is not always a clean-cut answer. 

The Appeals Court offered the simplest solution to this type of question: Let each municipality’s zoning ordinance make this call. But affording standing to nearly any party alleging a zoning violation would seemingly eliminate “aggrievement” from G.L. c. 40A, § 17.

Therefore, determining whether one’s harm is more than de minimis will remain a continued source of contention for future zoning appeals. Those pursuing zoning appeals must be mindful that a determination of standing is a question of fact, and careful thought must be given to the evidence necessary to prove such a matter.  

Murchison also reaffirms that, in Massachusetts, zoning decisions are intended to be local. Because a zoning appeal under G.L. c. 40A, § 17, requires a showing of harm, many zoning decisions will not (and, indeed, cannot) be reviewed in court, for want of a party with standing to challenge the decision. This means that, for many zoning matters, local board of appeals or special permit granting authorities will continue to have the final say on many land use decisions.

Adam Sherwin is a solo practitioner concentrating in real estate litigation. He represents property owners, landlords, and tenants with a wide array of real estate matters, including boundary disputes, zoning appeals, contract disputes, foreclosure law, and landlord-tenant matters.


Town of Sudbury v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

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by Jessica G. Kelly

Case Focus

The long-standing “prior public use doctrine”—a common law doctrine which arose in the 1800s—states that “public lands devoted to one public use cannot be diverted to another inconsistent public use without plain and explicit legislation authorizing the diversion.” Town of Sudbury v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 485 Mass. 774, 775 (2020) (Sudbury).  In a much anticipated decision, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that the prior public use doctrine did not apply to “diversion of land devoted to one public use to an inconsistent private use.” In Sudbury, the SJC declined to extend the doctrine to land transactions between public agencies and private entities. 

As the defendants in the underlying case, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and NSTAR Electric Company d/b/a Eversource Energy (Eversource) urged, the SJC reasoned that application of the prior public use doctrine to public to private transactions would have broad, adverse implications for real estate and housing development in the Commonwealth, including creating significant uncertainty in developments that benefit the public.

Background

The case began in 2017, after the MBTA entered into an option agreement with Eversource to install an electric transmission line underneath approximately nine miles of a former MBTA railroad right of way (ROW), a portion of which traveled through the Town of Sudbury (Town). The MBTA originally acquired the ROW through a railroad company indenture and through eminent domain for purposes of mass transportation services. The ROW had not, however, been used as a railroad for over forty years. The option agreement would generate $9.3 million for the MBTA over twenty years. 

The Town challenged the agreement as violating the prior public use doctrine, arguing that the ROW could not be changed to an electrical utility use absent legislative approval. The Town took the position that Eversource’s proposed utility line was actually a subsequent public use, because utilities have a public purpose and, therefore, fell within the doctrine.

In granting the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, the Land Court (Piper, J.) concluded that the Town’s standing was on the “precipice of adequacy,” but that Eversource was not a public entity, the proposed use at issue was a subsequent private use, and, therefore, the prior public use doctrine did not apply.

The Court’s Analysis

The SJC affirmed. The SJC first held that the Town had standing based on the limited portions of publicly-owned land abutting or within the ROW, but only to the extent the Town had a legally cognizable interest in the ROW remaining in its “current, disused, and overgrown condition.”

The SJC next addressed whether the prior public use doctrine applied to the option agreement. The Town argued that the Land Court erred because (1) even though Eversource is a private corporation, the proposed use of the ROW for electrical transmission lines is a public use; and (2) the Land Court’s narrow reading of the prior public use doctrine defeats the purpose of protecting “public land acquired for a particular public use” from being diverted to a different use without legislative approval.

The SJC agreed with the Land Court that, “the proposed use of the MBTA ROW to construct and operate underground transmission lines is not a public use.” The Court focused on the character of the use, noting that Eversource is privately owned and operated, will pay taxes and can earn a profit on the project. That Eversource is subject to public regulation and oversight did not convert the privately owned utility into a public entity.    

The SJC also agreed with the Land Court that the prior public use doctrine could not be extended to protect public land from any subsequent inconsistent use. The Court explained that the doctrine originally developed, not just to protect public land, but to resolve disputes over inter-governmental transfers between public agencies, political subdivisions and/or state-sponsored corporations that may have conflicting claims to authority over the use of public land, especially parkland. As examples, the SJC cited to a dispute between a town and State agency over whether property acquired for parkland could be converted to a transportation use, Brookline v. Metropolitan Dist. Comm’n, 357 Mass. 435, 435 (1970), and a dispute between a town and county commissioners concerning the relocation of a public way over land previously appropriated for school and library use, Needham v. County Comm’rs of Norfolk, 324 Mass. 293, 295-297 (1940), among others. 

The SJC concluded that the “doctrine of prior public use prevents the absurd result of public entities, each with the authority to exercise eminent domain, taking and retaking the same property from each other” in perpetuity. Noting that the prior public use doctrine had never been applied to prevent a subsequent private use by a private entity, the SJC expressly declined to extend the doctrine to such circumstances. The Court also cautioned that requiring legislative approval for every diversion of land from public to private use “would lead to numerous deleterious consequences,” such as adding significant uncertainty to development in the Commonwealth and making important collaborations between public and private entities time- and cost-prohibitive.

Implications

The SJC’s decision in Sudbury was a relief to real estate and utility industries, among others. The SJC appeared persuaded by the argument that public/private development projects rely on the ability of public agencies to divert public land to private entities for private uses, and that many such developments further public purposes such as clean energy, public housing, and affordable child care facilities, and generate significant income for the Commonwealth.

It is important to note that the Sudbury decision does not open the floodgates to unfettered transfers of public lands, but simply eliminates the need for legislative approval for those transfers to private entities for private uses. Aggrieved parties may still challenge projects through local zoning, site plan review, utility, environmental, building and conservation procedures. Indeed, the Town of Sudbury’s appeal of the Energy Facilities Siting Board’s decision approving Eversource’s transmission line is currently pending before the SJC, No. SJC-12997. 

Jessica Gray Kelly is a partner at the Boston office of Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP.  She represents clients in complex commercial litigation, land use disputes, and professional liability matters. She also advises clients on risk reduction and management and dispute resolution. 


McLean Hospital Corporation v. Town of Lincoln

by Caiti A. Zeytoonian

Case Focus

In McLean Hospital Corporation v. Town of Lincoln, 483 Mass. 215 (2019), the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that emotional and social skills-based education falls within the scope of a Massachusetts statute that exempts educational land uses from local zoning laws. The case reaffirms that the protection afforded to educational uses under that statute—G.L. c. 40A, § 3, commonly known as the “Dover Amendment”—extends beyond traditional forms of education and includes uses that provide therapeutic or rehabilitative support in addition to a primary educational purpose.

Background

The Dover Amendment provides, in relevant part:

No zoning ordinance or by-law shall . . . prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for . . . educational purposes on land owned or leased . . . by a nonprofit educational corporation; provided, however, that such land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures and determining yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, parking and building coverage requirements. (emphasis added).

The law, enacted in 1950 in response to local zoning bylaws that prohibited religious schools within residential neighborhoods, was intended to provide special zoning status for religious and educational uses. Since the Dover Amendment’s inception, the SJC has interpreted the scope of “educational purposes” broadly. See, e.g., Fitchburg Hous. Auth. v. Board of Zoning Appeals of Fitchburg, 380 Mass. 869 (1980) (facility where formerly institutionalized adults resided while “being trained in skills for independent living, such as self-care, cooking, job seeking, budgeting, and making use of community resources” qualified as educational use); Gardner-Athol Area Mental Health Ass’n v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Gardner, 401 Mass. 12 (1987) (residential facility where adults with mental disabilities would be taught “daily living, as well as vocational skills, with the goal of preparing them for more independent living” served a primary educational purpose). These interpretations of the Dover Amendment were consistent with the SJC’s longstanding tradition of taking a broad view of the notion of ‘education’:

Education is a broad and comprehensive term. It has been defined as “the process of developing and training the powers and capabilities of human beings.” To educate, according to one of Webster’s definitions, is “to prepare and fit for any calling or business, or for activity and usefulness in life.” Education may be particularly directed to either the mental, moral, or physical powers and faculties, but in its broadest and best sense it relates to them all.

Mt. Hermon Boys’ Sch. v. Town of Gill, 145 Mass. 139, 146 (1887) (emphasis added). The McLean Hospital decision can be viewed as the latest in a long line of cases continuing this tradition.

The SJC’s Decision in McLean Hospital

The plaintiff, McLean Hospital (“McLean”), purchased land in the town of Lincoln for the purposes of developing a residential skills-based program for adolescent males with “emotional dysregulation,” known as the “3East Program” (the “Program”). Despite receiving initial approval for the Program’s development by Lincoln’s building commissioner, McLean faced opposition from Lincoln residents, who challenged the program before the local zoning board of appeals (the “ZBA”). Upon review, the ZBA decided that the Program was “medical or therapeutic,” as opposed to “educational,” in nature, and, thus, did not qualify for exemption from the town’s zoning laws under the Dover Amendment. McLean filed an action in Land Court to challenge the ZBA’s decision. Finding in favor of the ZBA, the Land Court judge held that the proposed use of land was not “for educational purposes,” due primarily to the fact that the Program focused on “therapeutic” inward-facing life skills rather than “educational” outward-facing life skills.

On appeal, the SJC considered whether the Program, which was “designed to instill fundamental life, social, and emotional skills,” qualified as “educational” for purposes of Dover Amendment protection. McLean, 483 Mass. at 217. Ultimately, the Court concluded that the proposed program and its skill-based curriculum, “although not a conventional educational curriculum offered to high school or college students,” fell “well within the ‘broad and comprehensive’ meaning of “educational purposes” under the Dover Amendment.” Id. at 216 (citation omitted).

The SJC reached this conclusion by applying a two-pronged test: (1) whether “the bona fide goal” of the use can reasonably be described as “educationally significant;” and (2) whether “the educationally significant goal [is] the primary or dominant purpose for which the land or structures will be used.” McLean, 483 Mass. at 220 (citing Regis College v. Weston, 462 Mass. 280, 286 (2012)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Applying the first prong, the SJC considered the various aspects of the Program’s curriculum, which was to employ a “highly structured, nationally recognized, dialectical behavior therapy approach to attempt to develop social and emotional skills in students with severe deficits in these skills” and to feature a curriculum “taught in an experiential manner by specialists in clinical education.” McLean, 483 Mass. at 217, 219. The Program was to consist of instruction and practice in social and emotional skills focused in: (1) mindfulness and ability to pay attention; (2) emotional regulation; (3) development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships; (4) distress tolerance; and (5) validation, which the SJC described as “well-established areas where prior research has shown that training can be very effective.” Id. at 218. Ultimately, the SJC found that the Program would qualify as educationally significant, thereby upholding the longstanding notion that a program that instills “a basic understanding of how to cope with everyday problems and to maintain oneself in society is incontestably an educational process” within the meaning of the Dover Amendment. Id. at 221 (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

Applying the second prong, the SJC rejected the Land Court’s characterization of the Program as predominately therapeutic, explaining that a skills development program does not lose its primary educational purpose simply because “the particular competencies taught also may be therapeutic, rehabilitative, or remedial of an underlying condition.” Id. Notably, the SJC rejected the defendants’ contention that the Program was not educational due to the presence of a psychiatrist on staff and the fact that “participants may be a threat to themselves or others, in light of some of their histories of thoughts of suicide or self-injurious behaviors.” Id. at 223. As the SJC explained, the concepts of education and rehabilitation are not mutually exclusive, and “an attempt to sever that which is educational from that which is therapeutic is ordinarily a rather futile exercise.” Id. at 225. Moreover, the SJC rejected the lower’s courts distinction between outward-facing and inward-facing life skills:

Both inward-facing and outward-facing types of skills, even assuming they can be meaningfully parsed in this manner, are part of “the idea that education is the process of preparing persons ‘for activity and usefulness in life’” and thus protected as a significant educational purpose under the Dover Amendment . . . . We also decline to adopt the judge’s parsing of distinctions between a “therapeutic” program to teach inward-facing life skills and an “educational” program to teach outward-facing life skills.

Id. at 224-25 (citations omitted).

Implications of the McLean Decision Moving Forward

Advocates for persons with disabilities have celebrated McLean as a significant victory in the fight towards securing equal access to education for all. The decision confirms that a determination of whether a proposed use has an educationally significant purpose should focus on the program itself, rather than the type of student participating in the program. In so doing, McLean makes it clear that education with a therapeutic purpose and education with a traditional academic purpose are both valid and meaningful forms of education that are equally entitled to benefit from the Dover Amendment.

While McLean has widely been regarded as a decision concerning specialized education for persons with disabilities, the case has important implications for traditional education as well. As public school curriculums continue to evolve towards the inclusion of emotional and behavioral learning, McLean should be viewed as a significant and powerful reminder of what our jurisprudence has long understood to be true: All students must be learners – not just of arithmetic and spelling – but of the capacity to behave and interact with self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy for others. The SJC has long held that education is a “broad and comprehensive” term. Thus, the importance of McLean does not lie in the creation of new legal precedent, but in the deliverance of an impetus to align society’s understanding of what it means to educate a human being with that of our courts.

 

Caiti A. Zeytoonian is an Antitrust & Competition associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. She represents and advises clients in connection with federal and state government antitrust investigations, civil and criminal antitrust litigation, and antitrust compliance issues.


Land Court Jurisdiction Over Cases Affecting Title to Registered Land: How Exclusive is Exclusive?

by Donald R. Pinto, Jr.

Legal Analysis

Introduction

The Massachusetts Land Court is one of a kind. Created in 1898 to administer the then-new land registration system, the court’s jurisdiction has since expanded to encompass an extraordinarily wide range of real estate and land use disputes. The only other state with a Land Court is Hawaii, and that court’s jurisdiction remains limited to land registration matters.[1] The Massachusetts Land Court stands alone as the nation’s only all-purpose real estate specialty court.

Among the many types of cases it now hears, the Land Court has exclusive original jurisdiction over complaints for the confirmation and registration of land, as well as (except for certain domestic relations cases), “[c]omplaints affecting title to registered land . . . .” M.G.L. c. 185, §§ 1(a) & 1(a ½). From time to time this provision prompts questions concerning the jurisdiction of other trial courts over claims involving registered land. The Appeals Court recently addressed such a question in Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel, 99 Mass. App. Ct. 699 (2019). Before turning to Johnson, some background on the development of the Land Court’s expansive jurisdiction will provide useful context.

The Evolution of the Land Court’s Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Originally named the Court of Registration, the Land Court was created by Chapter 562 of the Acts of 1898. The court’s jurisdiction was limited to “exclusive original jurisdiction over all applications for the registration of title to land within the Commonwealth, with power to hear and determine all questions arising upon such applications, and also . . . jurisdiction over such other questions as may come before it under this act . . . .” After a brief period as the Court of Land Registration, in 1904 the court was re-named the Land Court and its exclusive original jurisdiction was expanded to include four causes previously heard by the Superior Court: writs of entry; petitions to require actions to try title; petitions to determine the validity of encumbrances; and petitions to discharge mortgages.[2] During the next 15 years the court was given exclusive original jurisdiction over petitions to: determine the boundaries of tidal flats (another transfer from the Superior Court);[3] determine the existence and extent of a person’s authority to transfer interests in real estate;[4] determine the enforceability of equitable restrictions on land;[5] foreclose tax titles;[6] and determine county, city, town, and district boundaries.[7]

The 1930s saw an even greater expansion of the Land Court’s jurisdiction. In 1931, the court was given original jurisdiction concurrent with the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) and the Superior Court over suits in equity to quiet or establish title to land and to remove clouds from title.[8] In 1934, one of the most significant expansions of Land Court jurisdiction occurred: the court was given original jurisdiction concurrent with the SJC and the Superior Court over “[a]ll cases and matters of equity cognizable under the general principles of equity jurisprudence where any right, title or interest in land is involved, except suits in equity for specific performance of contracts.”[9] In 1934 and 1935, the court also was given exclusive original jurisdiction over petitions under M.G.L. c. 240, § 14A to determine the validity and extent of municipal zoning ordinances, bylaws, and regulations,[10] and original jurisdiction concurrent with the SJC and the Superior Court over suits in equity involving: redemption of tax titles; claims between joint trustees, co-executors and co-administrators; fraudulently conveyed real estate; and conveyances of real estate to municipalities, counties, and other subdivisions of the Commonwealth for specific purposes.[11]

The Land Court’s jurisdiction remained relatively static for the next 40 years. In 1975, the legislature enacted the Zoning Act, M.G.L. c. 40A, and the court’s existing jurisdiction under M.G.L. c. 240, § 14A, was broadened, empowering it to hear (concurrently with the Superior Court) appeals from zoning boards of appeals and special permit granting authorities.[12] Jurisdiction over appeals from planning board decisions under the subdivision control law was added in 1982.[13]

In 1986, in response to confusion over the scope of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over the land registration system – particularly regarding other trial courts’ ability to decide claims involving registered land – the legislature added to the Land Court’s list of exclusive jurisdictional grants, “[c]omplaints affecting title to registered land . . . .”[14] As will be discussed below, while this language clarified the issue to a degree, it left important questions unanswered.

In 2002, the Land Court’s jurisdiction was again significantly expanded. The court was given original jurisdiction concurrent with the Probate and Family Court (the “Probate Court”) over petitions for partition,[15] and original jurisdiction concurrent with the SJC and the Superior Court over civil actions for trespass to real estate and actions for specific performance of contracts where any right, title, or interest in land is involved.  The legislation also expanded the court’s jurisdiction over land-use disputes, granting the court jurisdiction to hear certiorari and mandamus actions under M.G.L. c. 249, §§ 4 and 5 where any right, title, or interest in land is involved “or which arise under or involve the subdivision control law, the zoning act, or municipal zoning, subdivision, or land-use ordinances, by-laws or regulations.”  Two notable exceptions to this latter grant of jurisdiction are appeals from decisions of conservation commissions under local wetlands protection ordinances and bylaws and appeals from decisions of boards of health under Title 5 of the state sanitary code.

The most recent expansion of the Land Court’s jurisdiction occurred in 2006, when the legislature established a special “permit session” within the court.[16] This special session provides more intensive case management and expedited handling of cases involving larger real estate developments, defined as those comprising 25 or more dwelling units, or 25,000 or more square feet of gross floor area, or both.[17] In cases accepted into the permit session, the Land Court’s original jurisdiction (which is concurrent with the Superior Court) is even more expansive than its regular jurisdiction, encompassing virtually every type of local, regional, and state land-use permit, approval, order, and certificate. This sweeping jurisdiction includes, for example, appeals from decisions under the Boston zoning code, local wetlands protection ordinances and bylaws, and Title 5 of the state sanitary code – actions that are outside the Land Court’s regular jurisdiction.

It should be noted that in addition to the elements of the Land Court’s jurisdiction compiled in M.G.L. c. 185, § 1, and its permit session jurisdiction set forth in M.G.L. c. 185, § 3A, other statutes confer jurisdiction on the Land Court over other categories of cases. Two notable examples are M.G.L. c. 240, §§ 10A, which gives the Land Court jurisdiction concurrent with the Superior Court over actions to determine the scope and enforceability of restrictions on land, and St. 1943, c. 57, under which the court has jurisdiction concurrent with the Superior Court over suits in equity to determine, in connection with mortgage foreclosures, whether the mortgagor is a servicemember entitled to protection under the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C.A. § 3901.

St. 1986, c. 463, § 1

Before 1986, there was uncertainty over the extent to which trial courts other than the Land Court could decide cases involving registered land. For example, a damages claim for breach of a purchase and sale agreement for a parcel of registered land does not affect the title to that land, and thus can be brought in Superior Court. However, a case involving the scope of an easement over registered land presents a more difficult question. In Deacy v. Berberian, 344 Mass. 321 (1962), the plaintiff filed suit in Superior Court seeking to enjoin the defendants from interfering with her use of a right of way over registered land. Based on the language of the original Land Court decree, the defendants claimed that the plaintiff’s use of the way was limited to passage “on foot and with teams,” and that passage by automobiles was precluded. 344 Mass. at 326. On appeal from a judgment for the plaintiff, the defendants argued that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue. Id. at 328. In response the SJC stated, without further comment or analysis, “[w]e are of opinion [sic] that the purposes of the Land Court Act are not violated by the Superior Court interpreting the original decree so as to give effect to a common mode of transportation.” Id.  Similarly, in Cesarone v. Femino, 340 Mass. 638 (1960), the plaintiff filed suit in Superior Court seeking a declaration that he was the owner of a parcel of registered land because his signature on a deed purportedly conveying that parcel was forged. 340 Mass. at 639. On appeal from a judgment for the plaintiff, the defendants argued that because it involved ownership of registered land, the plaintiff’s claim was within the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction. Id. The SJC disagreed, characterizing the claim as one based on general principles of equity, concluding, “it appears that either the Land Court or the Superior Court could take jurisdiction.” Id. at 639-640.

In an effort to clarify the scope of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land and, by implication, the scope of other courts’ jurisdiction over cases involving registered land, in 1986 the legislature – as noted above – amended the court’s main jurisdictional statute, M.G.L. c. 185, § 1, to provide that the court has exclusive jurisdiction over “[c]omplaints affecting title to registered land . . . .” St. 1986, c. 463, § 1; M.G.L. c. 185, §1(a ½). However, it appears this amendment has failed in its mission: while the question whether a claim “affects title” to registered land seems like a simple one, in practice it has proved difficult for our appellate courts to answer in a consistent fashion.

Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel

Such a question was at the center of the Appeals Court’s decision in Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 699 (2019). Johnson involved a dispute between the plaintiff homeowner (“Johnson”) and an adjacent church over Johnson’s use of a driveway on the church’s property that provided access to Johnson’s property. Both properties are registered land. 96 Mass. App. Ct. at 700. After years of peaceful coexistence, in 2013, the church installed a six-foot fence on the property line, which prevented Johnson from continuing to use the driveway. Id. Johnson filed suit in Superior Court asserting claims of negligence, adverse possession, and violation of the “spite fence” statute, M.G.L. c. 49, § 21, which deems certain fences a form of private nuisance. Id. After a trial solely on the nuisance claim, the court ruled for Johnson and ordered the church to install gates in its fence to restore Johnson’s access. Id. at 700-701.

On appeal, though neither side raised the issue, the Appeals Court vacated the judgment on the ground that it effectively granted Johnson “a permanent easement to use the church’s property.” Id. at 701. Citing M.G.L. c. 185, §1(a ½), the Appeals Court held, “[t]he Superior Court does not have jurisdiction to so encumber registered land.” Id. In support of its holding the Appeals Court cited Feinzig v. Ficksman, 42 Mass. App. Ct. 113 (1997), which also involved use of a driveway on registered land. In Feinzig, the Superior Court had entered a judgment enjoining the defendant from interfering with the plaintiffs’ use of the defendant’s land. 42 Mass. App. Ct. at 115. The Appeals Court vacated that judgment, characterizing it as “a de facto encumbrance in the nature of an easement” that affected the defendant’s registered title, and therefore was within the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction and outside the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. Id. at 117. The Appeals Court observed, “while a Superior Court judge may order the discontinuance of a trespass on registered land, that judge may not fashion a judgment which has the effect of imposing an encumbrance on the registered title.” Id. at 115-116.

The Appeals Court’s Johnson decision omits any reference to O’Donnell v. O’Donnell, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 409 (2009), a decision that is hard to square with Johnson. In O’Donnell, the defendant mother was embroiled in litigation in the Probate Court with one of her sons over the validity of deeds to two parcels of registered land. 74 Mass. App. Ct. at 411. The mother claimed that those deeds had been procured by undue influence and fraud, and in breach of the son’s fiduciary duty. Id. The son unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the Probate Court action on the ground that it fell within the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land. Id. In response, the son and his brothers filed a new case in the Land Court seeking a declaration that the deeds were valid. Id. The Land Court dismissed that case on the ground of the prior pending Probate Court action, concluding that the judgment the mother sought in the Probate Court “would not of its own force purport to modify the registered title,” and therefore did not intrude on the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over claims “affecting title to registered land.” Id. The Appeals Court affirmed, noting that both the Land Court and the Probate Court have general equity jurisdiction and can decide claims concerning registered land, “as long as the action desired would not have the effect of altering the registered title.” Id. at 412, citing Steele v. Kelley, 46 Mass. App. Ct. 712, 725 (1999). The Appeals Court added that, if a Probate Court judge were to find the deeds valid, “they still would represent no more than ‘a contract between the parties, and . . . evidence of authority to the recorder or assistant recorder [of the Land Court] to make registration.’ A separate act of registration would remain necessary to modify the title directly.” Id., quoting Steele, supra.

It is true that under our system of land registration, with a few narrow exceptions, no matter can formally affect a registered title unless it appears in the certificate of title or is noted on that certificate’s memorandum of encumbrances. M.G.L. c. 185, § 57 crisply states, “[t]he act of registration only shall be the operative act to convey or affect the land.” This is the principle on which O’Donnell rests. But if the Probate Court can enter a judgment determining the validity of a deed to registered land because that judgment itself does not affect the title, why is the Superior Court, in the exercise of its equity jurisdiction, precluded from entering a judgment ordering a defendant to install gates in its fence so that the plaintiff can use the defendant’s registered land (Johnson), or enjoining a defendant from interfering with the plaintiffs’ use of the defendant’s registered land (Feinzig)? After all, such judgments would not of their own force purport to modify the registered title. They would stand simply as adjudications of the parties’ respective rights, and “evidence of authority to the recorder or assistant recorder to make registration.” O’Donnell, supra at 412. Under the reasoning of O’Donnell, it appears, other courts would be free to adjudicate virtually any dispute involving registered land – not only claims concerning the validity of deeds, but claims involving easements and other lesser interests in registered land.

If there is a reasoned way to harmonize the Johnson/Feinzig view of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land with the O’Donnell view, it is not readily apparent. The Johnson/Feinzig view is preferable in that it comports with the legislature’s presumed intent in 1986 to curb decisions like Deacy and Cesarone, supra, and reserve most disputes involving registered land for resolution by the Land Court, which is solely responsible for administering the registration system and has over a century of expertise in handling such disputes. The distinction that the Feinzig court drew between a claim of trespass on registered land, which does not affect title (at least where the trespasser claims no rights in the land), and a claim of a right to use registered land (whether direct or de facto), which does affect title, is sound and consistent with M.G.L. c. 185, §1(a ½). The O’Donnell view, in contrast, allows for no limiting principle and could lead to a significant erosion of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land. The real estate bar will be grateful if a future appellate decision resolves the contradiction between these two approaches and finally provides the clarity that the legislature sought to achieve in 1986.

[1]See HRS § 501-1.

[2] St. 1904, c. 448, § 1.

[3] St. 1906, c. 50, § 1.

[4] St. 1906, c. 344, § 1.

[5] St. 1915, c. 112, § 1.

[6] St. 1915, c. 237, § 3.

[7] St. 1919, c. 262, § 1.

[8] St. 1931, c. 387, § 1.

[9] St. 1934, c. 67, § 1.

[10] St. 1934, c. 263, § 1.

[11] St. 1935, c. 318, §§ 1-5.

[12] St. 1975, c. 808, § 3.

[13] St. 1982, c. 533, §§ 1 & 2.

[14] St. 1986, c. 463, § 1.

[15] St. 2002, c. 393.

[16] St. 2006, c. 205, § 15.

[17] M.G.L. c. 185, § 3A.

 

Donald R. Pinto, Jr. is a partner of Pierce Atwood LLP based in the firm’s Boston office. He has over 30 years of experience representing clients in all aspects of real estate and land-use litigation in the trial and appellate courts.


Skawski v. Greenfield Investors Prop. Dev. LLC Clarifies Which Courts Have Jurisdiction to Hear Appeals of Major Development Permits

Orloff_Gordonby Gordon Orloff

Case Focus

In February 2016 the Supreme Judicial Court decided Skawski v. Greenfield Investors Prop. Dev. LLC, 473 Mass. 580 (2016), and concluded that, in establishing the permit session of the Land Court, “the Legislature intended that major development permit appeals should be adjudicated only in the permit session of the Land Court or in the Superior Court.”  Id. at 581.  Therefore, Skawski ruled that the Housing Court lacked jurisdiction over challenges to a special permit granted for a major developments.  That decision was consistent with both the Appeals Court’s rescript decision in Skawski, 87 Mass. App. Ct. 903 (2015), and the Appeals Court’s earlier decision in Buccaneer Dev., Inc. v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Lenox, 87 Mass. App. Ct. 871 (2015).

G.L. c. 185, § 3A (“Section 3A”) gave rise to each of these cases.  That statute, which was enacted in 2006, established the permit session of the Land Court and granted it “original jurisdiction, concurrently with the superior court department, over civil actions in whole or part … arising out of the appeal of any municipal, regional or state permit, order, certificate or approval, or the denial thereof, concerning the use or development of real property” and other similar projects with 25 or more dwelling units and/or involving the construction or alteration of 25,000 square feet or more of gross floor area (which Skaswki termed “major developments”).

Skawski considered an abutter’s challenge to a special permit granted by the Greenfield Planning Board for construction of a retail development of approximately 135,000 square feet.  As was then common in Hampden County, the appeal was filed in Housing Court.

The Chief Justice of the Trial Court denied a motion to transfer the case to the permit session of the Land Court.  Later, the Chief Justice of the Housing Court failed to act on a request by the trial judge that the case be transferred administratively to the Superior Court Department and that she (the Housing Court trial judge) be cross-designated as a Superior Court judge.

Faced with a pending motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Housing Court judge withdrew her request and denied the motion to transfer the case.  She then reported her ruling to the Appeals Court.  Following the Appeals Court’s reversal of the trial judge’s order, the SJC granted the plaintiff’s application for further appellate review.

The issue confronted by the SJC was how to square Section 3A, which established the permit session, with G.L. c. 40A, § 17 (“Section 17”), which “gave subject matter jurisdiction in all permit appeals to the Housing Court, along with the Land Court, Superior Court, and District Court, and G.L. c. 185C, § 20, [which] gave any party the power to transfer such an appeal to the Housing Court if it were not initially filed there.”  Skawski, 473 Mass. at 585.  Chief Justice Gants engaged in a lengthy analysis of the language, context and history of Section 3A to reach the conclusion that the Housing Court was without subject matter jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

Skawski first acknowledged that Section 3A did not expressly repeal Section 17.  The SJC next turned to the legislative purpose of Section 3A to determine if it repealed Section 17 by clear implication.  The SJC emphasized that Section 3A was but one section of St. 2006, c. 205 (the “act”), “whose purpose is clear from its title, ‘An Act relative to streamlining and expediting the permitting process in the commonwealth,’ and its preamble—‘to forthwith expedite the permitting process in the commonwealth.’”  Skawski, 473 Mass. at 587.  “From the text of the act and its legislative history, it is plain that the Legislature sought to reduce the costs and delays of the permitting process required to conduct business and develop property.”  Id.  (citations omitted).  The SJC also observed that the “comprehensive scope of the act further suggests that the Legislature intended to be equally comprehensive in declaring which court departments would have original jurisdiction to adjudicate major development permit appeals.”  Id. at 588.

In light of the legislative purpose, the SJC concluded that, “[b]y specifying that the Superior Court Department shared concurrent jurisdiction with the permit session of the Land Court, and not also specifying any other court department as having concurrent jurisdiction, the Legislature impliedly reflected its intent that these major development permit appeals be adjudicated only by these two courts.”  Id. at 587-88 (emphasis added; citations omitted).

The SJC found further support for this conclusion in the fact that the “establishment of the permit session of the Land Court to hear major development permit appeals was an integral part of the act’s over-all plan to expedite the permitting process because § 3A establishes demanding time frames for the final disposition of such appeals in the permit session.”  In addition, Section 3A “allows any party, with the approval of the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, to transfer the appeal to the permit session….  But, if the Housing Court continued to have jurisdiction over these cases, any party could invoke G.L. c. 185C, § 20, and ensure that the final disposition of the appeal would be decided, not by the permit session, but by the Housing Court.”  Id. at 588-89.  Finally, the SJC found that the legislative history further supported its decision.  Id. at 589-591.

The SJC concluded

that the clear implication of these amendments is that the Legislature intended that major development permit appeals be adjudicated in the permit session and, if they could not be, either because the Chief Justice of the Trial Court denied the motion to transfer the case to that session or because a party claimed a right to a jury trial, that they be adjudicated in the Superior Court Department ….  In short, … the clear implication of § 3A is that the Legislature wanted all major development permit appeals to be adjudicated either in the permit session of the Land Court or in the Superior Court and therefore limited jurisdiction over these cases to these courts.

Id. at 590-91 (footnote omitted).

Interestingly, the SJC did not order dismissal of the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  Rather, it remanded the case to Housing Court to give the parties the opportunity to apply to the Chief Justice of the Trial Court for a transfer to the permit session of the Land Court or to the Superior Court.

Skawski gives effect to the Legislature’s intent to expedite appeals concerning major projects through use of the newly established permit session of the Land Court, staffed by judges with an expertise in land use matters.  Practitioners should take note that interdepartmental assignments of Housing Court judges to hear major development permit appeals are now impossible because the Housing Court is without jurisdiction over such appeals, notwithstanding the language of G.L. c. 40A, § 17 and G.L. c. 185C, § 20.

Gordon Orloff is a litigator at Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster in Boston, where he focuses on resolving real estate, land use, probate and business disputes.  Mr. Orloff is a regular contributor to Massachusetts Land Use Monitor, a blog that reports on new developments in real estate and land use law.