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SJC Affirms Test for Standing in Zoning Appeals

In a highly unusual move, only one day after hearing oral argument the Supreme Judicial Court on Friday (March 6, 2020) reversed an Appeals Court decision concerning standing in land use cases. The decision upheld the Land Court decision and reaffirmed what had been considered an undisputed  legal standard.

The Appeals Court decision in Murchison v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Sherborn, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 158 (2019), had been a source of concern amongst the land-use community since it was issued in September of 2019.  The Appeals Court reversed a 2018 Land Court decision which had concluded that the Plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the issuance of a foundation permit to their neighbors who were seeking to build a single-family home on their three-acre lot across the street from Plaintiffs’ property.  The only issue was whether the lot had the sufficient “minimum lot width” as set forth in the Sherborn zoning bylaw.  The Plaintiffs raised density concerns based upon the purported lack of required minimum lot width.  Relying upon a long line of cases discussing standing in land use cases, the Land Court judge determined that any harm to the Plaintiffs was, at most, de minimis, and therefore the Plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the permit.  Based upon the testimony of Mr. Murchison the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs simply did not want any construction on the lot in dispute.

The Appeals Court reversed the Land Court’s determination with respect to the Plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  The Appeals Court’s conclusion that the Plaintiffs had standing simply because they alleged a density-related harm, without analyzing the amount of harm and without giving any credence to the argument that such harm was de minimis, flew in the face of long-standing case law.  As the Land Court stated in a later case applying Appeals Court’s standard in Murchison, “since all of the Abutters allege harm from an increase in density and they are abutters or abutters to abutters of the proposed project, they have established that they will suffer harm to an interest protected by G. L. c. 40A and the ordinance (namely the interest in regulating density), and therefore are persons aggrieved by the remand decision. They are entitled to  . . . [a declaration that] they have standing.”  Chilton v. City of Medford Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 27 LCR 574, 577 (2019).

The new standard for standing as set forth in the Appeals Court’s decision had the potential to open the floodgates to abutter appeals where no harm need be alleged other than a density-related zoning violation.  The SJC granted further appellate review on the matter.  At oral argument the Court appeared highly skeptical of the arguments made by the Plaintiffs, and such an interpretation of the Court’s questions is supported by the almost-immediate issuance of a decision stating that the Land Court’s opinion is affirmed.  A full decision will follow, and we will be closely watching to see what additional analysis and direction the SJC may provide with respect to this issue.