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Bellalta v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Brookline

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

February 8, 2019

MARIA BELLALTA & another [1]

          Heard: October 1, 2018.

          Civil action commenced in the Land Court Department on November 18, 2016. The case was heard by Keith C. Long, J., on motions for summary judgment.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review. Jeffrey P. Allen (Donald J. Gentile also present) for the plaintiffs.

          Jeffrey P. Allen (Donald J. Gentile also present) for the plaintiffs.

          Jennifer Dopazo Gilbert for Jason Jewhurst & another. Jonathan Simpson, Associate Town Counsel, for zoning board of appeals of Brookline.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          LENK, J.

         We once again construe the "difficult and infelicitous" language of the first two sentences of G. L. c. 40A, § 6, insofar as they concern single- or two-family residential structures. See Fitzsimonds v. Board of Appeals of Chatham, 21 Mass.App.Ct. 53, 55-56 (1985) . These statutory provisions set forth both the exemption afforded to all legally preexisting nonconforming structures and uses from the application of zoning ordinances and bylaws, as well as how those protections can be forfeited or retained when such nonconforming structures or uses are extended or altered. The statute also accords special protection to single- and two-family residential structures in the event that the nonconformity is altered or extended; it is the extent of that protection in the circumstances here that we clarify.

         The defendant homeowners sought to modify the roof of their two-family house and to add a dormer; doing so would increase the preexisting nonconforming floor area ratio. The zoning board of appeals of Brookline (board) allowed the defendant's request for a special permit, after determining that increasing the preexisting nonconforming nature of the structure would not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the preexisting nonconforming use. The plaintiff abutters, however, challenged the board's action, contending that the statute does not exempt the defendants from compliance with municipal bylaws, and that to do so here would require the defendants to obtain a variance in addition to the special permit. The plaintiffs appealed; a Land Court judge upheld the board's action.

         We conclude that the statute requires an owner of a single-or two-family residential building with a preexisting nonconformity, who proposes a modification that is found to increase the nature of the nonconforming structure, to obtain a finding under G. L. c. 40A, § 6, that "such change, extension or alteration shall not be substantially more detrimental that the existing nonconforming use to the neighborhood." The statute does not require the homeowner also to obtain a variance in such circumstances. We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Land Court.

         1. Background.

         The material facts are not in dispute. The defendants, Jason Jewhurst and Nurit Zuker, own the second-floor condominium unit of a two-family house on Searle Avenue in Brookline. The plaintiffs, Maria Bellalta and Damon Burnard, own a house on Cypress Street that abuts the defendants' house. The two abutting lots are located in a T-5 residential zoning district that encompasses single-family, two-family, and attached single-family houses. While many of the lots on Searle Avenue are undersized according to the Brookline zoning bylaw, the defendants' lot is the smallest; its 2, 773 square feet are slightly more than one-half the minimum requirement of 5, 000 square feet for a lot containing a two-family house in the T-5 zone.

         As to the structure itself, the sole legal nonconformity of the defendants' house, which was in existence when they purchased the property, is the floor area ratio (FAR).[3] The Town of Brookline (town) bylaw requires a maximum FAR of 1.0 for a two-family house in a T-5 zoning district, and the defendants' house has a FAR of 1.14. The proposed renovation project would convert the roof of the house from a hip roof to a gable roof and would add a dormer to the street-facing fagade, thereby creating 677 square feet of additional living space on the third floor of the building.[4] This project would increase the already nonconforming FAR from 1.14 to 1.38.

         The defendants initially submitted their request for a building permit to the building commissioner; that application was denied.[5] The defendants then submitted a request for a special permit to the board, and the board conducted a public hearing on the request. The abutting plaintiffs opposed the request for a special permit, both in writing prior to the hearing and orally at the hearing. Fifteen other neighbors submitted statements in support of the project; they viewed the proposed roofline as being consistent with the over-all design and character of the neighborhood.

         Members of the town's building department and its planning board spoke at the hearing, and presented reports on their review of the project, as did the defendants' architect, who had conducted shadow studies of the effect of the proposed roof on the abutters' property. Statements and reports from town officials indicated that the majority of the houses on the street have partial or full third stories, and are taller than the defendants' existing building. Those officials also noted that the proposed project would make the defendant's house appear more consistent, both in height and in design, with the others on the street. The board unanimously determined, inter alia, that, pursuant to the requirements of section 9.05 of the bylaw, "[t]he specific site is an appropriate location for such a use, structure, or condition," and "[t]he use as developed will not adversely affect the neighborhood." Accordingly, the board found that the defendants had satisfied the requirements for issuance of a special permit.[6] The defendants did not request a variance.[7]

         The plaintiffs commenced an action in the Land Court, pursuant to G. L. c. 40A, § 17, to challenge the board's decision. The parties agreed that the material facts were not in dispute, and filed cross motions for summary judgment. A Land Court judge denied the plaintiffs' motion and allowed the joint motion of the defendants and the board. The plaintiffs appealed to the Appeals Court, and we allowed their petition for direct appellate review.

         2. Discussion.

         We review de novo the allowance of a motion for summary judgment, viewing the facts "in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment entered." 81 Spooner Rd., LLC v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Brookline, 461 Mass. 692, 699 (2012), citing Albahari v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Brewster, 76 Mass.App.Ct. 245, 248 n.4 (2010) . A decision on a motion for summary judgment will be upheld if the judge "ruled on undisputed material facts and the ...

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