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Barry v. Planning Board of Belchertown

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Hampshire

October 29, 2019

RICHARD G. BARRY & another [1]

          Heard March 1, 2019

          CIVIL ACTION commenced in the Superior Court Department on March 13, 2015. The case was heard by John S. Ferrara, J., on motions for summary judgment.

         Katherine D. Laughman for the defendants.

         Ryan K. O'Hara for the plaintiffs.

         Michael Pill, for W.D. Cowls, Inc., amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

         Present: Maldonado, McDonough, & Englander, JJ.

          ENGLANDER, J.

         This case requires us to examine the law regarding so-called "approval not required" (ANR) plans for the division of real estate pursuant to the subdivision control law, G. L. c. 41, §§ 81L and 81P. In particular, we consider whether a 1987 judgment involving the same Belchertown (town) way at issue in

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this case is entitled to collateral estoppel [3] effect offensively, against the town, in connection with a new ANR plan filed for different property by different applicants, almost thirty years later. The motion judge concluded that the 1987 judgment had established that the way -- Munsell Street -- was a "public way," and that, accordingly, the plaintiffs were entitled to ANR approval of their proposed plan, which sought approval for two lots with frontage on Munsell Street. We vacate the judgment, because neither the 1987 judgment nor the evidence of record establish that the portion of Munsell Street at issue is a public way, and because the 1987 judgment -- which required the ANR endorsement of a plan abutting a different portion of Munsell Street -- is not entitled to preclusive effect in this case.


         We recite the undisputed facts from the parties' summary judgment materials and the exhibits attached thereto. Munsell Street has existed on the ground since at least the 1800s, although the condition of the way has varied through the years, and Munsell Street's condition currently varies greatly along its length. The street runs westerly, from its beginning at an intersection with Gold Street. In 1990, the town formally accepted the first 2,730 feet of Munsell Street as a public way. Munsell Street is improved up to a point just short of the end of that acceptance. Beyond that point the road becomes a gravel road, which "dwindles" as one moves further west. The motion judge stated that "[t]here is no question that, at some point, Munsell Street becomes impassable to most vehicles, after which it is no more than a remote trail that may meet up with an old path in neighboring Pelham."

         This case involves the portion of Munsell Street beyond the termination point of the formal acceptance. On January 23, 2015, Richard G. Barry [4] (applicant) filed with the planning board of Belchertown (board) an application seeking an ANR endorsement pursuant to G. L. c. 41, § 81P. The accompanying plan showed two lots, lots A and B, each with 140 feet of frontage on Munsell

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Street. [5] Lot A fronts on the accepted portion of Munsell Street. Lot B does not; its eastern boundary coincides with the end of the accepted way, so that the entirety of lot B fronts on a portion of Munsell Street that has not been formally accepted.

         The board denied the application on the ground that the portion of Munsell Street fronting lot B did not meet the criteria for frontage contained in G. L. c. 41, § 81L. The board further concluded that lot B included land, specifically the portion of Munsell Street that fronts lot B, that had been required to be dedicated to open space as a condition of approval of the neighboring Oasis Drive subdivision. The board's decision also incorporated the opinion of town counsel noting that the portion of Munsell Street fronting lot B "is simply an old dirt/gravel path that is rutted and only passable by four-wheel drive vehicles," and "[t]he Planning Board would therefore be justified in determining that the way does not contain adequate width grade or construction to provide access for new residential development."

         On cross motions for summary judgment, a Superior Court judge granted summary judgment to the applicant. The judge reasoned that the 1987 judgment of the Superior Court established that Munsell Street is a public way and, applying principles of issue preclusion, ordered the board to endorse the plan as "Approval under Subdivision Control Law not required." The judge also concluded that because Munsell Street was a public way, it could not have been transformed into "open space" by a condition imposed during subdivision approval. The judge accordingly ordered the entry of a declaratory judgment that the full length of Munsell Street is a public way. The town appeals.


         The focus of the applicant's summary judgment motion was not that Munsell Street in front of lot B actually meets the § 81L criteria for adequate frontage, but rather that the board is collaterally estopped from denying that Munsell Street meets the criteria of § 81L. The principal question before us, therefore, is whether the 1987 judgment precludes the town from refusing to grant ANR approval for lots fronting on the applicable portion of Munsell Street. Before diving into the details ...

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