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How Does the Land Court Evaluate A Challenge to a Restaurant Permit?

In the recent Essex Land Court decision of McWilliams, et al. v. Town of Rockport, et al., the Court evaluated a challenge to the Rockport Zoning Board’s decision to grant a defendant LLC a special permit allowing it to operate a restaurant with a maximum indoor and outdoor combined seating capacity of 96 patrons. The appeal was brought by the owners of residential property located adjacent to the restaurant, who claimed that the restaurant increased traffic, increased noise, and decreased available parking in the neighborhood. The Court heard extensive evidence regarding each of these claims and balanced the perceived benefits to the neighborhood of allowing the restaurant to operate against the downsides claimed by the plaintiffs.

In doing so, the Court noted that a restaurant had operated on the same premises, albeit with a lower seating capacity, for nearly four decades, and that the benefits of allowing diners the opportunity to eat outdoors by the water and to enjoy the local area outweighed any increased traffic and noise that resulted from the restaurant’s operation. The Court did not find compelling evidence demonstrating that increased traffic was the direct result of the restaurant’s operation or that the noise generated by the restaurant would be untenable given its maximum capacity of 96 patrons. The Court next evaluated the plaintiff’s arguments regarding parking, noting that the restaurant had only 25 allotted spaces; additionally, evidence was presented indicating that, on busy days, the restaurant’s patrons did sometimes park illegally on surrounding streets. The Court found that this problem was alleviated in part by available and nearby overflow parking and the fact that the restaurant was only busy during limited times of the day and year. After considering all of the arguments, the Court upheld the Zoning Board’s decision to allow the restaurant permission to operate, noting that the Court was required to give substantial deference to the local Zoning Board’s reasonable decisions regarding the impact of any proposed zoning decision on the neighborhood.

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