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Springfield Green-Wood-Chip Power Plant Gets Go Ahead from Appeals Court

The Appeals Court has affirmed a Land Court decision overturning two decisions by the Springfield Zoning Board of Appeals which had revoked building permits issued to Palmer Renewable Energy, LLC, for construction of a biomass power plant that burns “green wood chips” to generate electricity.  Springfield had argued that a special permit was required for the power plant because the plant would have on-site incineration.

The zoning ordinance in question read as follows:

“[b]uildings may be erected or used . . . for . . . [t]he following uses only when authorized as a special permit by the City Council . . .: [i]ncineration, reduction of or dumping offal, garbage or refuse on a commercial basis, EXCEPT where controlled by the municipality.”

Springfield took the position that the term “incineration” referred to the burning of any material, not just the burning of “offal, garbage or refuse,” an interpretation that the Appeals Court concluded would lead to an “absurd result.”  The term incineration, properly read within the context of the ordinance, did not apply to the burning of green wood chips.

Perhaps sensing that its position was precarious, Springfield attempted to argue that green wood chips constitute “refuse” within the meaning of the ordinance, and that another portion of the zoning ordinance properly requires a special permit for the creation of poisonous gas emissions.  However, as the Appeals Courts stated, the reasons were not “relied upon by the board in its decisions, nor did the board make any factual findings in support of these rationales.”  The Court the reiterated the well-known rule that the Court is “not obliged to search for facts in the record to support a rationale that the board did not itself provide.”

The Appeals Court therefore affirmed the Land Court decision, which reinstated the two as-of-right building permits to Palmer.

This case affirms certain well-known statutory interpretation rules.  Particularly, that words are generally given their normal definition, and also that context is critical in determining the meaning of a word.  Springfield’s attempt to read a portion of the ordinance out of context to provide cover for their revocation of the building permits was contrary to the proper interpretation, and was therefore overturned.

Springfield also argued that the last antecedent rule, which states “the general rule of statutory as well as grammatical construction that a modifying clause is confined to the last antecedent unless there is something in the subject matter or dominant purpose which requires a different interpretation,” supported its position.  The Appeals Court rejected because this argument, because in this instance there was “something in the subject matter or dominant purpose” which required a difference interpretation – namely, the context in which the term “incineration” was used.

The full decision can be read here.