Challenging A Zoning Decision In Boston

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Local zoning decisions can radically change the landscape of neighborhoods, and challenging a local zoning board’s decision in the Commonwealth’s courts poses several procedural traps for the unwary. This is particularly true for challenging zoning decisions issued by the City of Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal.

Appeals from a Boston Zoning Board of Appeal decision are governed by Section 11 of the Boston zoning enabling act, Chapter 665 of the Acts of 1956 (“An Act Authorizing the City of Boston to Limit Buildings According to their Use or Construction to Specified Districts”). The statute governing zoning appeals in other Massachusetts cities and towns, G.L. c. 40A, § 17, does not apply in Boston. In the words of the Supreme Judicial Court, “Boston has had unique zoning regulations for a long time, due to the city’s concentrated population and intense land use by religious, educational, business, and government entities.” See Emerson College v. City of Boston, 393 Mass. 303, 306 (1984).

The two pieces of legislation are similar in many respects, and Massachusetts appellate courts have recognized that, in certain contexts, it is appropriate to import case law interpreting G.L. c. 40A, § 17 into appeals of zoning decisions in Boston. See e.g., Sherrill House, Inc. v. Board of Appeal of Boston, 19 Mass. App. Ct. 274, 275 (1985) (holding that inquiry outside of Boston is appropriate to determine the meaning of “aggrieved” for the purpose of establishing standing to pursue appeal of zoning decision). However, in light of the hypertechnical procedural requirements of zoning appeals, familiarity with the Boston-specific legislation is critical.

Once the procedural prerequisites are satisfied, Section 11 of Chapter 665 states that the court’s review of City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeal decisions shall be de novo: “[T]he court shall hear all pertinent evidence and determine the facts, and upon the facts as so determined, annul such decision if found to exceed the authority of such board or make such other decree as justice and equity may require.”

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