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Holdcraft v. Town of Brookfield

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 13, 2019

JOHN HOLDCRAFT, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF BROOKFIELD, and TOWN OF BROOKFIELD ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Background

          John Holdcraft (“Holdcraft” or “Plaintiff”) filed a complaint in the Worcester Superior Court on September 19, 2017 against the Town of Brookfield (“Town”) and Town of Brookfield Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) challenging the ZBA’s decision requiring him to remove a shed on his property from which he operates a charitable business. Holdcraft seeks the following relief: (1) a declaratory judgment that the ZBA decision is invalid (Count One); (2) injunctive and equitable relief, due to the harm that would result from having to remove the shed, which has been on his property since 2003 (Count Two); and (3) damages for deprivation of his property rights, due process and right to quiet enjoyment in retaliation for having exercised his federal and state right to free speech (Count Three). This Memorandum of Decision and Order addresses Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss (Docket No. 7). For the reasons set forth below, that motion is granted.

         Facts

         On or about July 17, 2003, the ZBA granted a special permit to Holdcraft to build a shed on his property located on South Maple Street in Brookfield, Massachusetts (“Property”). The special permit was filed with the Town Clerk on August 18, 2003. This special permit was “issued for a period of two years, subject to renewal for a year period upon the applicant’s compliance with all the conditions in this permit on the operation of this business during the permit period.” On June 2, 2005, the ZBA voted unanimously in favor of Holdcraft’s request for an extension of the original permit. The permit granting the extension stated that: “[t]he members of the Zoning Board of Appeal voted at their meeting … for an extension for John Holdcraft to build a shed as agreed almost 2 years ago. The shed will be 27 feet x. 8 feet with a 36-inch-wide door. The, original agreement was 17 Jul 03. This extension is good until 31 Dec 05.” The permit was filed with the Town Clerk on June 9, 2005.

         Thereafter, Holdcraft built his shed and used it to store goods, material and products. Holdcraft was able to use the shed and the property surrounding it in quiet enjoyment until March 21, 2017 (approximately twelve years after the extension was granted) when Clarence Snyder (“Snyder”), a member of the Town’s Board of Selectman, filed a “Request for Zoning Enforcement” (“Request”) with the Brookfield Zoning Enforcement Officer (“ZE Officer”). Snyder asked that the ZE Officer “order the removal, forthwith, of the business signage from the [Property].” Snyder has no legal relation to the Property, that is, he is not an owner or abutter and does not live near the Property. Significantly, Holdcraft has maintained a sign on the Property questioning Snyder’s abilities and capabilities to serve as a Selectman.

         In response to Snyder’s Request, the ZE Officer wrote back to Snyder on April 3, 2017, stating that he had inspected the Property and had imposed three specific requirements on Holdcraft regarding landscaping, signage and leaving materials outside the shed. However, the ZE Officer did not order Holdcraft to remove the shed. Snyder filed an appeal of the ZE Officer’s decision to the ZBA stating that the ZE Officer had failed to address the primary issue of whether the special permit had expired on December 31, 2005. He further stated: “Please be advised that I am aggrieved by the decision and I request a public hearing on this appeal. Following the hearing, I request that the Zoning Board of Appeals grant my appeal and determine that the special permit has lapsed and the enforcement action should be taken by the ZEO to require removal of the business, shed and signage on the property.” Snyder did not explain how he was aggrieved by the ZE Officer’s decision.

         The ZBA scheduled a hearing on Snyder’s complaint. In contravention of Massachusetts law, neither Holdcraft, the abutters or any other parties with an interest in the Property were notified of the hearing. The hearing was scheduled for July 19, 2017 but was continued multiple times and was ultimately held on August 16, 2017. Notice of the first two continuances (to August 1 and then to August 2, 2017) was not provided to Holdcraft, the abutters, or any other persons with a legal interest in the Property. Although Holdcraft was served with two weeks’ prior notice of the final continuance to August 16, 2017, notice was not given to the abutters or any other persons with a legal interest in the Property.

         Prior to the August 16th hearing date, Holdcraft’s counsel sent a letter to the ZBA’s counsel and Snyder’s counsel pointing out perceived flaws with respect to the upcoming meeting. The letter to the ZBA’s counsel noted that a ruling upholding Snyder’s complaint would require Holdcraft to take down a building that has been up since 2005 and end his quiet enjoyment of the Property that has existed since the permit was granted. At the hearing, Holdcraft’s counsel argued that Snyder had no standing to appeal the ZE Officer’s letter ruling because he was not an abutter, had no legal interest in the Property, and was otherwise not an “aggrieved” party. The ZBA ruled 4 to 1 in favor of upholding Snyder’s complaint.

         The ZBA’s decision upholding Snyder’s complaint was filed with the town clerk on August 30, 2017 (the ”ZBA’s Decision”). On September 19, 2017, Holdcraft filed a complaint in state court. He attempted to have notice and a copy of the complaint brought to the clerk’s office that same day. According to Holdcraft’s attorney, when he reached the Town office building sometime between 3:45 and 4:00 p.m., the building itself was open, but the Town Clerk’s office was closed. Holdcraft emailed the complaint to the Town’s counsel that afternoon and announced that he had filed a complaint at a Board of Selectmen meeting that evening. Holdcraft states that the Town Clerk “may” have been at the meeting.

         Discussion

         Defendants allege that Holdcraft failed to serve a copy of his complaint on the Town Clerk within twenty days of the filing of the ZBA’s Decision, as required by Mass.Gen.L. ch. 40A § 17 (“Chapter 40A”)[1]. They argue that the complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) because the untimeliness of the appeal divests the Court of subject matter jurisdiction over his claims. They further argue that the complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim for relief.

         Whether Plaintiff’s Complaint must be Dismissed for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction Standard of Review

         Defendants assert that Holdcraft’s complaint must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) because he failed to timely appeal the ZBA’s decision in accordance with Massachusetts law. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), a claim must be dismissed when the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. A motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction “is flexible, and it can serve as a procedural vehicle for raising a variety of challenges to the court’s power to hear the case.” United States v. Lahey Clinic Hosp., Inc., 399 F.3d 1, 8 n.6 (1st Cir. 2005) (citing 5B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur B. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350, at 61 (3d ed. 2004)). Once a defendant challenges a court’s subject matter jurisdiction, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish a foundation for jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Padilla–Mangual v. Pavia Hosp.,516 F.3d 29, 31 (1st Cir.2008); Aversa v. United States,99 F.3d 1200, 1209 (1st Cir.1996). Dismissal is proper when “[a] court lacks jurisdiction over the claims or the parties.” Overton v. Torruella et al.,183 F.Supp.2d 295, 303 (D.Mass.2001). In ruling on a Rule ...


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