170 F.3d 258 (2nd Cir. 1999), 97-7323, Natale v. Town of Ridgefield

Docket Nº:Docket No. 97-7323.
Citation:170 F.3d 258
Party Name:Paul NATALE; Wendy Natale; Jarrod Natale, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. TOWN OF RIDGEFIELD; Ridgefield Planning and Zoning Commission, Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:March 08, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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Page 258

170 F.3d 258 (2nd Cir. 1999)

Paul NATALE; Wendy Natale; Jarrod Natale, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

TOWN OF RIDGEFIELD; Ridgefield Planning and Zoning

Commission, Defendants-Appellants.

Docket No. 97-7323.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

March 8, 1999

Argued Nov. 30, 1998.

Page 259

Ralph G. Elliot, Tyler Cooper & Alcorn, Hartford, CT, for defendants-appellants.

David A. Reif, New Haven, CT (Donna Decker Morris, Susman, Duffy & Segaloff, New Haven, CT, on the brief), for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before: NEWMAN, LEVAL, and PARKER, Circuit Judges.

JON O. NEWMAN, Circuit Judge:

This appeal brings before us the recurring claim of a property owner alleging that the action of local officials in denying him permits has deprived him of his constitutionally protectable right not to be deprived of his property without due process of law. See, e.g., Walz v. Town of Smithtown, 46 F.3d 162 (2d Cir.1995); RRI Realty Corp. v. Village of Southampton, 870 F.2d 911 (2d Cir.1989); Yale Auto Parts, Inc. v. Johnson, 758 F.2d 54 (2d Cir.1985). The defendants-appellants, the Town of Ridgefield ("Ridgefield") and the Ridgefield Planning and Zoning Commission ("the PZC") (together, "the Municipal Defendants"), appeal from the July 3, 1996, judgment of the District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thomas P. Smith, Magistrate Judge), entered after a jury verdict in favor of Paul Natale, his wife, and their son (together, "the Natales"), and related rulings. The jury found that the Municipal Defendants had violated the Natales' federally protectable property rights in the issuance of certain zoning and building permits by refusing to issue those permits in the absence of subdivision approval. The jury awarded the Natales $1,000,000 in damages for lost profits and emotional distress.

We conclude that the verdict must be set aside because the jury was not instructed that liability could be established only upon a finding that the Natales were deprived of any property interest they might have had in the permits by conduct that violated the substantive standards of the Due Process Clause, i.e., conduct that is so outrageously arbitrary as to constitute a gross abuse of governmental authority. We also conclude that retrial under proper instructions is not necessary because uncertainty as to the meaning of state law requirements precluded the Natales' claim to the permits from achieving the degree of certainty necessary to accord them constitutionally protectable property.

Background

The controversy in this case stems from Natale's attempt to obtain certain zoning and building permits that were required before he could begin developing four abutting parcels of land in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Because controversies of this sort turn not only on the geographic landscape, but even more on the relevant local legal landscape, a federal court is obliged to examine carefully state and local regulations as well as court and administrative decisions.

Natale purchased four parcels of land in Ridgefield in 1986. Each parcel measures between one and one and a-half acres. Ridgefield's zoning regulations generally require residential building lots to be at least three acres. A property owner who intends to develop a residential lot of less than three acres normally must obtain subdivision approval from the PZC before Ridgefield will issue a zoning permit for the lot.

During the period when Natale sought the permits at issue in this case, the PZC maintained that his lots would constitute a subdivision under Ridgefield and Connecticut laws, requiring subdivision approval. Natale, on the other hand, maintained that the lots were not a subdivision because a map reflecting the four separate lots had been recorded with Ridgefield prior to the adoption of the subdivision regulation.

When the regulation requiring subdivision approval was adopted in 1959, it was accepted (and is not disputed on this appeal) that lots measuring less than three acres would be deemed validly subdivided if they had been recorded prior to the adoption of the regulation. In 1963, however, Ridgefield enacted a provision that seemed to repeal the grandfathering of lots on which construction had not yet begun. This "ungrandfathering"

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drew support from a 1967 decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court construing the 1963 Ridgefield regulation. See Sherman-Colonial Realty Corp. v. Goldsmith, 155 Conn. 175, 183, 230 A.2d 568 (1967). Sherman-Colonial stated, "The mere filing of maps for the subdivision of a parcel of real estate does not necessarily immunize the subject property from the operative effect of subsequent subdivision regulations." Id. at 572 (emphasis added). In 1977, however, the state statutory definition of "subdivision" was amended to mean "the division of a tract or parcel of land ... made subsequent to the adoption of subdivision regulations by the [local planning and zoning] commission." Conn. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 8-18 (1989). The enactment of section 8-18 created uncertainty as to whether Natale's lots required local subdivision approval. The parties' opposing positions on this issue and the ultimate state court resolution of their dispute is considered below.

Natale's lots had been registered before 1959, when the subdivision regulation was adopted, but the previous owners did not begin construction prior to 1963.

Natale, a home builder, contracted to purchase the four lots for $200,000 in October 1985; title was transferred in June of 1986. Acting as an agent for the seller of the lots, a real estate broker applied in January 1986 for zoning variances for each of the lots. These...

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