Massachusetts Appeals Court Issues Important Zoning Clarification

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In Pelullo v. Croft, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision regarding zoning by-laws. 86 Mass. App. Ct. 908 (2014). The Defendant applied to the Natick building inspector for a permit to construct a single family home on his lot at 15 Upland Road. Id. at 909. The plaintiff, who owned a property abutting 15 Upland Road, filed an opposition to the permit application on the grounds that the lot did not meet the requirement in a Natick Zoning Bylaw that there be a “minimum lot depth of 125 feet” for the construction of a single family home in a residential zoning district. Id. at 908.

The Natick building inspector issued the requested permit to the landowner, reasoning that “in cases involving ‘odd-shaped lots,’ the ‘depth is determined by established practices and procedures of the Building Department which involve a calculation of lot depth on an angle in conjunction with a determination as to satisfaction of all other applicable dimensional requirements.'” Id. at 909. After the Natick board of appeals affirmed the determination of the building inspector, the plaintiff appealed to the Land Court, which reversed the board of appeals and denied the issuance of the building permit. Id..

The Appeals Court affirmed the decision by the Land Court. The Court noted that the term “lot depth” was undefined by the Natick Zoning Bylaws, but that the Bylaws specifically provided that undefined terms should be “given ordinarily accepted meanings or such as the context may imply.” Id. The Court stated that the ordinary definition of depth is a measurement from the front to the back, and held that “a court owes deference to the interpretation of a zoning by-law by local officials only when that interpretation is reasonable.” Id. The Appeals Court found that the building inspector had not explained why a diagonal measure of lot depth was consistent with the meaning of the by-law or explained any reasoned basis behind the apparent established practices and procedures of the Building Department. Id. at 410. The Court held that the use of a subjective determination that a lot is “odd-shaped” would lead to arbitrary and idiosyncratic results not permissible under the Natick Bylaw. Id. .

The Appeals Court ruling in Pelullo v. Croft is an important reminder to land owners, local officials and building inspectors that the language of state and local laws, regulations, and ordinances must control zoning determinations. Massachusetts courts will not hesitate to overturn local officials in the face of arbitrary or unreasonable determinations contrary to the import of the language of those regulations.

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