by Adam Sherwin
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.
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.
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.
by Richard H. Goldman
The transfer of real estate to children upon the death of the last to die of their parents can lead to unexpected problems for the children. It is not uncommon for parents’ estate plans to provide that upon the death of the last parent to die, their real estate shall be distributed to their children equally as tenants in common. However, problems arise when the children cannot agree upon the disposition of the real estate. This article offers suggestions for provisions to be included in the estate plans of parents so that such disputes can be avoided.
Right of First Offer
One way of addressing these issues is to include in the parents’ estate plans a “right of first offer,” applicable to each parcel of real estate that is to pass to their children. A right of first offer is a contract provision that enables one joint owner of property (“Potential Seller”) to offer to sell his or her interest in the property to the other joint owner (“Potential Buyer”) for a price specified by the Potential Seller (“the Specified Price”).
Within an agreed period of time, to be specified in the estate plans, the Potential Buyer may elect (a) to purchase the Potential Seller’s interest at the Specified Price; or (b) agree that the Potential Seller can sell the Property for a price not less than what would provide the Potential Buyer the amount he or she would have received if the Potential Buyer had sold his or her interest to the Potential Seller for the Specified Price.
If the Potential Buyer does not timely elect to purchase the Potential Seller’s interest at the Specified Price, or having elected to purchase, does not complete the purchase within the permitted time, then for a subsequent specified period of time, the Potential Seller can try to sell the Property to a third party for a price that would cause the Potential Buyer to receive not less than the Specified Price for his or her interest in the Property.
By way of example: Assume that a husband and wife have two children. They own two homes, one in Massachusetts and the other in Florida, each with a value of $1,000,000. Their estate plans provide that upon the last of them to die, the balance of the estate, including the two homes, is to be distributed to the two children equally as tenants in common.
The two children agree that the Massachusetts home will be sold, but one child wants to sell the Florida home and the other child wants to retain it. The estate plans do not contain any guidance as to how to resolve the situation if the children do not agree on the disposition of the homes. The children consult their respective attorneys and are advised that either one can commence a partition proceeding which could be expensive and adversarial.
A better solution is for the parents’ estate plans to set forth a right of first offer. The parents’ estate plans could provide that if the children cannot agree on the disposition of the properties, then within 90 days after the death of the last parent, either child can notify the other in writing that the property should be sold for a price which he or she specifies, in his or her sole discretion, in this example, $1,000,000. The child who receives the notice then has a specified period of time after the receipt of the notice to elect in writing to buy the interest of the other party for $500,000, and to complete the purchase within the period of time stated in the estate plans. If the recipient of the notice does not elect to purchase the interest of his or her sibling for $500,000, or to complete the purchase within the applicable time period, the party providing the notice can sell the property to an unrelated third party for not less than $1,000,000 within a time period specified in the estate plans. If a sale of the property is not completed to a third-party within the agreed time period, either sibling would continue to have the right to utilize the right of first offer in the future.
Offer to Purchase for at Least Federal Estate Tax Value
There are other alternatives that can achieve the same result as a right of first offer. The estate planning documents can provide that following the death of the last parent, either child can offer to buy a property owned by the parents for not less than the federal estate tax value of that property. The estate’s attorney would prepare a purchase and sale agreement at that price. If only one child is interested in purchasing the property, that child could then submit a written offer to purchase to the estate for the federal estate tax value, accompanied by a check payable to the estate equal to 10% of the purchase price and a signed copy of the purchase and sale agreement.
If each child would like to purchase the property for not less than the federal estate tax value, each child submits a written offer to the estate with his or her offer, accompanied by a 10% deposit payable to the estate and a signed copy of the purchase and sale agreement. The child who offers the highest price would be the purchaser of the property at the price offered by him or her.
If neither child is interested in purchasing the property from the estate for at least the federal estate tax value, the Personal Representative will sell the property on behalf of the estate.
Right of First Refusal
In some cases, clients have been advised to use a right of first refusal instead of a right of first offer. While a right of first refusal can lead to the same result as a right of first offer, a right of first refusal brings with it some potential problems. In a right of first refusal, one of the children could negotiate a sale with a third party but would then have to come back to the other child and give that child the right to purchase the property at the price offered by the third party. It can be difficult for a seller to deal with a third party if that party knows that the seller cannot complete the sale without first offering the property to the other child at the price offered by the third party. For this reason, the right of first offer is a better solution than the right of first refusal.
It is important for lawyers to recognize problems that may arise when family real estate is transferred from parents to their children. The right of first offer is a tool available to estate planning attorneys that can be used to plan for the transfer of real estate from parents to children and minimize any potential conflicts.
Richard Goldman is Senior Counsel at Sullivan & Worcester LLP in Boston. He is an Adjunct Professor at Boston University School of Law and is Vice President of the Wesleyan Lawyers Association.
by Matthew J. Kiefer and Louise B. Giannakis
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts prides itself on being “first in the nation” for many milestones: the first public park (Boston Common), the first college (Harvard) and the first to legalize same-sex marriage. A lesser known “first” was the Commonwealth’s formal recognition of the public trust doctrine, a legal concept dating at least to Justinian. The doctrine, first codified by the Colonial Ordinances of the 1640s, obligates the Commonwealth as trustee to ensure that land subject to tidal action is used for public benefit. The doctrine evolved into M.G.L. c. 91 (“Chapter 91”), the Public Waterfront Act (“Act”). Historically, the Act focused on preserving public access to the water, protecting tidelands for water-dependent uses such as fishing and boating, and encouraging uses and development that animate the waterfront. However, with record-breaking coastal flooding and sea level rise no longer distant threats, climate resilient waterfront development has become a policy imperative in Chapter 91 licensing.
Chapter 91 is a comprehensive licensing program, administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), to ensure that proposed waterfront development projects meet public benefit standards with respect to environmental protection, public safety, navigation, preservation of historic maritime industries, and recreational, commercial and industrial activities and uses. Licensing by DEP can be a complex and lengthy process, especially for large-scale urban projects. Although DEP has yet to incorporate formal climate resiliency requirements into its licensing program, a prudent project proponent should include climate resilience as an integral part of a project’s public benefit profile in light of the DEP’s recent licensing decisions, public comments and formal requirements established by other regulatory agencies, such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (d/b/a Boston Planning and Development Agency or “BPDA”).
Do the regulatory homework: Effective representation of a proponent of a waterfront project requires a determination of how the Chapter 91 and associated regulatory standards and policy goals apply to a particular project. See Waterways Regulations, 310 CMR 9.00 et seq., Designated Port Area (DPA) Regulations, 301 CMR 25.00 et seq., Municipal Harbor Plan (MHP) Regulations, 301 CMR 23.00 et seq. Early analysis of site-specific factors by a cross-disciplinary team is often required to identify which Chapter 91 requirements are applicable to a particular site — such as whether the site is historically filled or currently flowed tidelands or is nontidal, whether it is above or below the historic low water mark, and whether it serves water-dependent or nonwater-dependent uses. This is critical to developing an effective Chapter 91 permitting path, and should include evaluation of appropriate climate resiliency measures. For example, as sea levels continue to rise, it would be wise to anticipate whether structures currently above the high water mark, and thus exempt from licensing, may become “intertidal” and thus subject to Chapter 91 jurisdiction.
Review other agencies’ climate change initiatives for guidance: As climate resiliency becomes a policy imperative for the modern world, federal, state and local agencies are increasingly launching initiatives and establishing requirements to protect communities from the adverse effects of climate change. In March, 2016, Governor Baker signed Executive Order 569, “Establishing an Integrated Climate Change Strategy for the Commonwealth,” and in early 2018, authorized over $1.4 billion in capital allocations “to mitigate and adapt to climate change” and “build a more resilient Commonwealth.” These climate resiliency investments include infrastructure repairs and improvements, as well as grants to communities through the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program and the State Hazard Mitigation and Adaptation Plan. In October, 2017, the BPDA formally integrated climate resilience measures into its approval process under Boston Zoning Code Article 80 for Large Project, Planned Development Area and Institutional Master Plan Reviews by requiring a “Climate Resiliency Checklist Report” that incorporates sea level rise, storm surge, extreme precipitation, extreme heat events, and other considerations. Other Boston initiatives include the recently-approved Downtown Waterfront Municipal Harbor Plan, which encourages a comprehensive, district-wide approach to creating a climate resilient waterfront that overcomes the limitations of a parcel-by-parcel permitting process, and Climate Ready Boston, an ongoing city-wide planning effort to address the effects of climate change. At the federal level, the newly revised Federal Emergency Management Agency flood hazard maps increase the reach of flood zones and show a stepped-up focus on the topic.
Consider climate resilience measures in recently approved projects: Many questions remain on the Chapter 91 licensing implications of many potential climate resiliency measures. Can raised seawalls or berms be licensed if they reduce public pedestrian access? Would a flood protection berm consisting of new fill in flowed tidelands be licensable? Would raising the grade of a project site to anticipate rising sea levels allow for a commensurate increase in building height? What is the scope of responsibility for an individual licensee whose site is located on an area-wide flood zone and whose flood protection activities may not be effective until the entire area is protected?
Regulatory uncertainty notwithstanding, it is clear that adapting to sea level rise is necessary for the long-term viability of a waterfront project. For instance, the developers of Clippership Wharf in East Boston have designed a floodable harbor-walk that can act as a buffer for high seas and are importing significant amounts of new fill to raise parts of the seven-acre site above anticipated flood levels. The developers of a large mixed-use campus at Suffolk Downs in Boston-Revere have proposed a sunken amphitheater with capacity to hold millions of cubic feet of flood water for days to address anticipated flood levels. The developers of the L Street Power Station in South Boston have proposed an elevated floor of the building to accommodate the possible need to raise the ground level while maintaining a reasonable floor to ceiling height.
In short, even in the absence of clear regulatory requirements, waterfront development proponents should incorporate climate resilience measures early in the licensing strategy, not only to extend the project’s design life, but also to facilitate the licensing approval by anticipating the public benefit expectations of the DEP and interests of the waterfront communities.
Matthew J. Kiefer is a Director at Goulston & Storrs, focusing on real estate development and land use. Matt has extensive experience licensing projects under Chapter 91, including Clippership Wharf in East Boston, the Innovation and Design Building in the Ray Flynn Marine Park, and Building 114 and the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in the Charlestown Navy Yard. He co-chairs the firm’s Climate Resilience Task Force.
Louise B. Giannakis is an Associate in Goulston & Storrs’ Real Estate practice group. Louise graduated from Boston College Law School in 2017 and is a member of the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leader Group.
by Esme Caramello and Annette Duke
“If I see that a prospective tenant has ever had a lawyer in any proceeding at http://www.masscourts.org as of this case forward I no longer take them as a tenant. This is a free country. They certainly have a right to hire a lawyer and I have a right to not take them as tenants because of that.” Massachusetts Landlords Blog, June 12, 2015.
The Trial Court’s Electronic Case Access system (MassCourts) was not intended to be a direct, online “free tool for tenant screening.” But that is how it is increasingly being promoted and used:
“After years of lobbying from rental housing groups, the Massachusetts Housing Court has finally announced a powerful new and free tool for tenant screening: public internet access to all Summary Process, Small Claims, Civil and Supplementary Process case types…. This new system will enable landlords to research whether a potential or current tenant has been a party to a previous eviction, small claims or related housing case.” The Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog, “ Massachusetts Housing Court and Tenant Eviction History Now Online,” April 24, 2013 (emphasis added).
While careful, conscientious tenant screening can help landlords avoid problems with new tenants, the automatic refusal to rent to anyone whose name appears in an online court database is a dangerous form of tenant blacklisting. Tenants are sometimes forced by absentee or unscrupulous landlords to access the courts to protect their families from unsafe conditions. For example, one tenant, 8½ months pregnant and shoveling the walkway in front of her unheated apartment, turned to the court to force an unresponsive bank that owned her building to pay its bills and maintain the property. Another faced a retaliatory eviction lawsuit after reporting a building-wide bedbug infestation affecting the health of her neighbors, families, and friends. Still another was brought into court after her landlord discovered she had a female partner. Blacklisting tenants like these merely because their names are online in MassCourts erects unfair barriers to finding an apartment for anyone who has ever been to court in a housing case – tens of thousands of people every year – and could place especially vulnerable people with limited housing options into a spiral towards homelessness.
While some landlords undoubtedly look beyond the mere fact of a tenant’s appearance in MassCourts to the actual “Disposition” or docket itself, even this increased level of scrutiny may not elicit an accurate picture of a tenant. MassCourts was not designed as a tenant-screening tool. It is a case management database built to assist the court system in managing litigation, and it uses shorthand that suffices for that purpose. It does not tell the real story behind any landlord-tenant dispute. Most summary process dockets, for example, ultimately reflect a judgment for the landlord. This does not equate to a finding the tenant was at fault. The vast majority of tenants are unrepresented, and the few who are lucky enough to access legal assistance often do not agree to have a judgment enter against them, but instead secure dismissal of the case or a straight agreement (with no judgment of eviction) in which the parties make commitments to each other, such as payment of rent in exchange for repairs.
To make matters worse, there are inaccuracies in the MassCourts database. For example, a review of housing cases closed by the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau in 2013 showed that in nearly 10% of the cases, MassCourts incorrectly displayed a judgment of eviction against the tenant when there was none. In MassCourts, “no-fault” evictions are sometimes miscoded as “cause” cases. Cases that have been dismissed may appear as open, active cases or even judgments in favor of the landlord. Minor children may erroneously appear as parties in their parents’ eviction cases, potentially hurting their creditworthiness before they have a chance to enter the adult world. MassCourts remote access takes these errors and turns them into major barriers to housing, with no way for a tenant to even know that this information is being used by a landlord and no clear way to challenge its accuracy.
Other states have recognized the problems with court-enabled tenant screening and scaled back access. For example, in 2012, the Chief Administrative Judge of the New York State Office of Court Administration announced that the court would no longer include in the electronic data feed it sold to tenant screening companies the names of tenants involved in New York City Housing Court evictions. See Hon. Gerald Lebovits and Jennifer Addonizio, The Use of Tenant Screening Reports and Tenant Blacklisting, New York State Bar Association (2013). Applauding this action “to protect both New York’s tenants and the integrity of the court system,” one legislator explained: “When the fear of being ‘blacklisted’ causes many tenants to avoid the court and relinquish their legal rights, access to justice is fundamentally undermined.” Sen. Krueger Announces Courts to End Electronic Sale of Housing Court Data Used in “Tenant Blacklists” (2012).
Massachusetts, through the Trial Court Public Access to Court Records Committee, can and should implement safeguards that protect tenants without impairing the public’s right to open courts. A very limited change to how party identification information is displayed online could counteract the misuse of MassCourts: tenant names should be replaced with numbers or initials in the online database. Parties and attorneys would still be able to access case information online with docket numbers. The official case record would still be public, would still include parties’ names, and could be accessed by going to court. This change would balance protecting tenants’ rights with keeping court records public.
With 40,925 eviction cases filed in Housing and District courts across the Commonwealth in FY 2014 alone, the easy, online use of MassCourts as a free tenant screening tool has become a serious access to justice issue. Without reform, tenants will increasingly fear that the consequences of coming to court will be that they won’t be able to find housing in the future, and they will not see courts as a place to seek justice.
Annette Duke is a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a statewide nonprofit poverty law and policy center. She specializes in public housing and landlord-tenant law and is currently working with the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and a broad coalition of organizations to expand housing courts statewide.
Esme Caramello is the Faculty Director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a century-old student-run legal services organization that represents low income clients in housing, family, wage and hour, and government benefits cases. She is also a Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School, where she teaches courses in housing law and policy and legal skills and ethics.