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Murchison v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Sherborn

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

September 30, 2019

ROBERT MURCHISON & another[1]
v.
ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS OF SHERBORN & others.[2]

          Heard: February 12, 2019.

          Civil action commenced in the Land Court Department on November 9, 2016. The case was heard by Karyn F. Scheier, J.

          James W. Murphy for the plaintiffs.

          Merriann M. Panarella, pro se.

          David H. Erichsen, pro se, was present but did not argue.

          Present: Rubin, Sullivan, & Neyman, JJ.

          RUBIN, J.

         This is an appeal from a judgment of the Land Court dismissing the claims asserted by the plaintiffs, Robert and Alison Murchison (plaintiffs), for lack of standing to challenge the grant of a foundation permit to Merriann M. Panarella and David H. Erichsen (defendants) for a single-family home in Sherborn. Because we conclude the plaintiffs could establish standing on the basis of alleged harm resulting from the violation of a density-related bylaw, we reverse the judgment of the Land Court and remand for further proceedings.

         Background.

         The following facts are taken from the Land Court judge's findings of fact and rulings of law. The plaintiffs own a single-family home in Sherborn. The defendants own a vacant three-acre lot across the street from the plaintiffs' property. Both lots are in Sherborn's Residence C zoning district. Sherborn's bylaws impose a requirement that each lot in this district have a minimum lot width of 250 feet.

         On June 29, 2016, Sherborn's zoning enforcement office (ZEO) issued a foundation permit for a single-family residence on the defendants' property (proposed development). On July 19, 2016, the plaintiffs filed a timely notice of appeal to the Sherborn zoning board of appeals (board), which held a public hearing on the matter on September 14, 2016. On October 5, 2016, the board upheld the ZEO's issuance of the permit. The plaintiffs then appealed the board's ruling to the Land Court under G. L. c. 40A, § 17.

         In the Land Court, the plaintiffs argued among other things that the proposed development violated the bylaws because the lot had insufficient width. The bylaws state that "minimum lot width" is to be "[m]easured both at front setback line and at building line. At no point between the required frontage and the building line shall lot width be reduced to less than [fifty] feet, without an exception from the Planning Board." The bylaws define "Width, Lot" as "[a] line which is the shortest distance from one side line of a lot to any other side line of such lot, provided that the extension of such line diverges less than [forty five degrees] from a line, or extension thereof, which connects the end points of the side lot lines where such lines intersect the street right-of-way." There is no definition of "front setback line." The definition of "building line" is "[a] line which is the shortest distance from one side line of the lot to any other side line of the lot and which passes through any portion of the principal building and which differs by less than [forty five degrees] from a line which connects the end points of the side lot lines at the point at which they intersect the street right-of-way." The plaintiffs argued that, applying these definitions, the lot widths were 209.56 feet and 192.42 feet at the front setback line and building line respectively, neither of which satisfied the minimum lot width requirement of 250 feet. The defendants argued that their proposed development satisfied the minimum lot width requirement. After a four-day trial, the Land Court judge issued a judgment that did not reach the merits of the case, and instead dismissed it for lack of standing. This appeal followed.

         Discussion.

         General Laws c. 40A, § 17, allows any "person aggrieved by a decision of the board of appeals" to challenge that decision in the Land Court. "A 'person aggrieved' is one who 'suffers some infringement of his legal rights.'" Sweenie v. A.L. Prime Energy Consultants, 451 Mass. 539, 543 (2008), quoting Marashlian v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Newburyport, 421 Mass. 719, 721 (1996). Our courts grant a rebuttable "presumption of standing" to all parties satisfying the definition of "parties in interest" in G. L. c. 40A, § 11. See 81 Spooner Rd., LLC v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Brookline, 461 Mass. 692, 700 (2012). This definition includes "owners of land directly opposite on any public or private street or way." G. L. c. 40A, ยง 11. Since the plaintiffs are owners of land directly opposite the lot in question, they satisfy the definition of "parties in interest" and are therefore entitled to a rebuttable presumption of standing. This rebuttable presumption does not displace the general rule that a plaintiff ...


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