Zoning and the Dover Amendment: When is education the primary purpose of a residential facility?

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In a recent decision, The McLean Hospital Corporation v. Town of Lincoln & Others, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that a proposed residential program for adolescents is exempt from local zoning laws under the Dover Amendment.

McLean Hospital had purchased 5.5 acres of land in a residential district in Lincoln with the intent of using it to develop a residential life skills program for boys between the ages of 15 and 21 who exhibit extreme "emotional dysregulation." The aim of the program, 3East Boys, is to allow residents to develop the emotional and social skills necessary for them to return to their communities and lead useful and productive lives. During the program, residents would receive approximately eleven hours per day of instruction and practice in social and emotional skills, including seven hours of classroom work.

Before purchasing the property, McLean contacted Lincoln's building commissioner seeking a determination whether the project could proceed pursuant to the Dover Amendment. The Dover Amendment provides an exemption from local zooming laws for those uses of land and structures that are for "educational purposes." See G.L. c. 40A, § 3, paragraph 2.

The building commissioner determined that McLean's proposed use of the property was educational and that the project could continue under the Dover Amendment. However, local residents challenged this determination and the town's zoning board reversed the commissioner's decision on the grounds that the program was medical and therapeutic in nature rather than educational.

McLean appealed the board's decision and, after a four-day trial, a Land Court judge found that the purpose of the 3East Boys program was primarily therapeutic, not educational, drawing a distinction between life skills that are "focused inward" and those that "look outward," and ruled in favor of the town.

On appeal, the SJC vacated the Land Court's decision, finding that, although not a conventional educational curriculum offered to college or high school students, the proposed facility and 3East Boys' skills-based curriculum fall well within the broad and comprehensive meaning of educational purposes under the Dover Amendment.

The SJC followed its previously articulated two-prong test to determine whether the proposed use falls within the Dover Amendment's protections: (1) The use must have its bona fide goal a purpose that can reasonably be described as "educationally significant," and (2) the educationally significant goal must be the primary or dominant purpose for which the land or structures will be used.

The Court notes that it was relatively undisputed that the 3East Boys program includes an educationally significant component, stating that they repeatedly have held that a program that instills "a basic understanding of how to cope with everyday problems and to maintain oneself in society is incontestably an educational process" within the meaning of the Dover Amendment.

Turning to the second prong, the Court stated that educational and therapeutic purposes are not mutually exclusive, and that although "emotional or psychiatric programs may determine the character of the training furnished to residents of the proposed facility, they certainly do not mark the facility as 'medical' or render it any less educational." (Internal quotations omitted). The Court also pointed out that the emotional and behavioral skills taught at the 3East program increasingly are becoming part of the curriculum in many traditional public schools in Massachusetts. The Court also gave weight to the trial judge's finding that no medical inventions are used in the program.

The Court rejected the town's various arguments, including that the 3East program exemplifies the Court's previously expressed concern that a purely residential facility cannot add an informal educational program as a smokescreen in order to obtain Dover Amendment. The Court distinguished the 3East program from those residential programs with informal "smokescreen" educational programs, pointing out that 3East includes a full-time, highly structured, mandatory curriculum taught by formally and specially trained staff.

Finally, the Court rejected the Land Court judge's distinction between so-called "outward-facing" skills (those that help assimilate individuals into their respective communities) and "inward-facing" skills (those that help address any internal manifestations or symptoms of a mental disorder), stating that the Court has not previously endorsed such a distinction and that both sets of skills, to the extent they can be classified in such manner, are part of "the idea that education is the process of preparing persons for activity and usefulness in life." (Citation omitted).

The Court agreed with McLean that in this type of situation, an attempt to separate the educational from the therapeutic, is ordinarily futile. The Court vacated the trial court's judgment and remanded it to the Land Court for entry of judgment in favor of McLean.

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