In a January 4, 2024 decision, the Massachusetts Land Court in Estate of Virginia L. Isola v. Town of Stoneham struck down provisions of the Bylaws of the Town of Stoneham that had required proposed subdivisions of land to set aside a portion of their lots for affordable housing. Finding the Bylaw provisions ran afoul of the Subdivision Control Law, the Land Court cleared the way for a smooth permitting process for the applicant, who wishes to subdivide a 3.9-acre parcel in Stoneham into 12 or 13 lots.
The relevant Bylaw provisions required applicants seeking to subdivide real property into eight or more dwelling units to (1) obtain a special permit from the Planning Board, and (2) to reserve at least 12% of their units for affordable housing. In invalidating these Bylaw provisions, the Court looked to the Subdivision Control Law—a statewide law that all municipalities in the Commonwealth are bound to follow. The purpose of the Subdivision Control Law, the Court reasoned, is to regulate “the laying out and construction of ways” (roads) within proposed subdivisions. The Court explained that the Subdivision Control Law limits a planning board’s scope of review of a proposed subdivision to determining whether the proposal complies with applicable rules and regulations. Because the Bylaw provisions in Stoneham purported to give the planning board the authority to disapprove plans that fully complied with rules and regulations, the Bylaw provisions ran afoul of the Subdivision Control Law.
The Court noted that although creating more affordable housing is a worthwhile goal, that was clearly not the intent driving the Subdivision Control Law. Indeed, promoting affordable housing is achieved through other mechanisms, most significantly G.L. c. 40B. The Court’s decision in this case thus reveals a preference for statewide regulation of affordable housing over the creation of piecemeal local policies. In this way, the decision serves as a check on a Town’s propagation of affordable housing at the expense of individual landowners’ freedom of disposition.