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Hanlon v. Town of Sheffield

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

May 13, 2016

TOWN OF SHEFFIELD & others. [1]

Civil action commenced in the Land Court Department on March 21, 2012.

The case was heard by Howard P. Speicher, J., on a motion for summary judgment.

Alexandra H. Glover for the plaintiff.

Peter Sacks, State Solicitor, for Department of Transportation, amicus curiae.

Present: Kafker, C.J., Katzmann, & Grainger, JJ.


The plaintiff John R. Hanlon, Jr., appeals from summary judgment entered in favor of the defendants, ruling that the town of Sheffield (town) was authorized to regulate the plaintiff's use of his property as a private noncommercial aircraft landing area notwithstanding the regulatory authority of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation aeronautics division (division).[2] In reversing the judgment we acknowledge that the motion judge was confronted, as are we, with statutory language in G. L. c. 90, § 39B, that undermines the evident purpose of the statute, and we note that this is an appropriate subject for corrective legislation.[3]


The facts are undisputed. The plaintiff owns approximately thirty-eight acres of land (property) in the town, containing the plaintiff's residence and a number of outbuildings suitable for storage of small airplanes. On the property, the plaintiff created a strip eighty feet wide by 1, 250 feet long for takeoff and landing of airplanes and, since at least 2006, has operated aircraft from the property as a hobby. In 2006, the plaintiff registered the property with the Federal Aviation Administration as a helipad. Pursuant to G. L. c. 90, § 39B, fourth par., he also registered the property as a noncommercial private restricted landing area (PRLA) with the division. He neither sought nor received any approval from the town with respect to the PRLA.

The property is located in a rural district under the town zoning by-law. Section 3.1 of the by-law provides that land may not be "used except as set forth in the . . . Table of Use Regulations." The section further provides that "[a]ny . . . use of premises not herein expressly permitted is hereby prohibited." Although "commercial airfield" is listed as a prohibited use in rural districts, the Table of Use Regulations contains no mention of noncommercial or private airfields.

In a letter dated November 15, 2011, the town's building commissioner/zoning enforcement officer ordered the plaintiff to cease and desist from using the PRLA on the property as such use was not "set forth" in § 3.1 of the by-law, and was therefore prohibited. The plaintiff appealed the cease and desist order to the town zoning board of appeals (board), which held hearings on four dates.[4] The board upheld the cease and desist order, and the plaintiff appealed the decision to the Land Court. In the Land Court, the plaintiff both appealed the board's decision, see G. L. c. 40A, § 17, and sought a determination that the bylaw provision was invalid, see G. L. c. 240, § 14A, insofar as it purports to regulate the use of the property for aircraft, because the town never submitted it to the division for approval. On the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, the judge held in favor of the town, declaring the by-law provision valid and enforceable to prohibit the plaintiff's use of the property as a PRLA.


The issue at hand is whether G. L. c. 90, § 39B, fifth par., read in conjunction with the section's preceding fourth paragraph, allows a municipality to ban noncommercial PRLAs without prior approval from the division. "We review questions of statutory interpretation de novo." Commerce Ins. Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., 447 Mass. 478, 481 (2006). However, "[o]ur primary duty in interpreting a statute is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature in enacting it. . . . Where the meaning of a statute is not plain from its language, we consider the cause of its enactment, the mischief or imperfection to be remedied and the main object to be accomplished, to the end that the purpose of its framers may be effectuated." Water Dept. of Fairhaven v. Department of Envtl. Protection, 455 Mass. 740, 744 (2010) (quotations and citations omitted). In doing so, "[w]e give substantial deference to a reasonable interpretation of a statute by the administrative agency charged with its administration enforcement." Commerce Ins. Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., supra.

Section 39B, added to the General Laws by St. 1946, c. 607, § 1, governs division approval of municipal airport sites and restricted landing areas and details the procedure for receiving a certificate of approval from the division.[5] The fifth paragraph of § 39B, inserted by St. 1985, c. 30, requires that a municipality making any rule, regulation, ordinance or by-law "relative to the use and operation of aircraft on said airport or restricted landing area, " receive approval from the division prior to the rule's taking effect. The language of the fifth paragraph applies to all landing facilities; it does not distinguish between commercial landing areas and private noncommercial landing areas.[6] Therefore, if the ...

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