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

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


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.

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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.


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 applications sought variances from Ridgefield regulations governing setback distances and lot size and area. The Ridgefield Zoning Board of Appeals ("the ZBA") granted the variances on March 17, 1986. The ZBA's decision explicitly refers to the three-acre lot requirement and purports to grant a variance from it.

Unlike the ZBA, the PZC believed that Natale needed to obtain subdivision approval for his less-than-3-acre lots before the town could issue zoning and building permits for the lots. Despite its right to do so, the Commission did not appeal the ZBA's decision to grant the variances. Instead, the Commission, led by Katz, its chairman, convened in a closed session on March 18, 1986, and passed a resolution directing the town's Zoning Enforcement Officer not to issue zoning permits despite the variances granted by the ZBA. The minutes of the Commission's meeting reflect that this action was taken because the Commission believed the lots required subdivision approval. As a result, the Zoning Enforcement Officer, Thomas Bogardus, denied Natale's application for a zoning permit for Lot 95, citing the minutes of the PZC's March 18th meeting.

Nevertheless, Natale began the process of obtaining a building permit for Lot 95. Both a zoning and a building permit are required to begin development. With some difficulty, Natale obtained several of the various other permits necessary to the grant of a building permit. However, the zoning permit denied by the PZC was also a prerequisite to the grant of a building permit, and the PZC continued to direct Bogardus, the Zoning Enforcement Officer, not to grant the zoning permit. Natale then filed a lawsuit on June 18, 1986, against the Commission and Bogardus in the Connecticut Superior Court, seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the issuance of zoning permits for the four lots. On the day a hearing for a temporary injunction was scheduled, the PZC agreed to "honor[ ] any variances granted by [the ZBA]" and grant a zoning permit for Lot 95 (the only lot for which Natale had sought a permit at this time) as soon as all zoning requirements were met. A zoning permit was granted eight days later.

Further complications ensued. Under Ridgefield zoning law, construction must begin within three months of the issuance of a zoning permit and be completed within a year. In order to begin construction, however, Natale needed a building permit. Since his initial legal skirmish with the PZC had proved successful and the zoning permit had been issued, Natale applied for a building permit, expecting routine review and approval of his application. However, on August 6th (two days after the temporary injunction hearing date where the PZC had agreed to honor the variances granted by the ZBA), the Chairman of the PZC wrote a letter to James McManus, the Building Inspector, with a copy to McManus's superior, the First Selectman, "appris[ing]" McManus that although the zoning permit had been issued for

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