Andrews v. Town of Amherst, 05-P-1824.

CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts
Citation68 Mass. App. Ct. 365,862 N.E.2d 65
Docket NumberNo. 05-P-1824.,05-P-1824.
PartiesLeigh F. ANDREWS & another<SMALL><SUP>1</SUP></SMALL> v. TOWN OF AMHERST.
Decision Date05 March 2007

Alan Seewald, Town Counsel, Amherst, for the defendant.

Gregor I. McGregor (Nathaniel Stevens, Boston, with him) for the plaintiffs.



A substantial portion of the plaintiffs' land (locus) in the town of Amherst (town) was rezoned from a light industrial zone to a flood prone conservancy (FPC) zone. A Land Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs' position that the action of the town constituted reverse spot zoning and therefore was null and void. We conclude that the plaintiffs did not present evidence sufficient to sustain their heavy burden to overcome the legitimacy of the town's action, and we reverse.

We first describe the locus in question, which was rezoned and the surrounding area, which was not. We next review the law relating to the authority of the town to establish the boundaries of its zoning districts in which the uses of land are restricted. We review the limitations on that authority imposed by our zoning statutes and the State Constitution. We conclude that those limitations did not operate to invalidate the action of the town in this case.

The locus. The locus is vacant land containing approximately twenty acres. While the locus currently is not farmed, it historically was used for agricultural purposes. Most of the land surrounding it is actively used farmland. It is bordered on the east by Route 116 which, as found by the judge, "provides a barrier between [the] locus and more intensive land uses to the east."

The locus is crossed by Mill River, Swamp Brook, and a drainage swale. Parts of the locus (although not all of the part rezoned) have been subject to seasonal flooding. When Hurricane Floyd visited in 1999, there was serious flooding of the locus and the entire area around the locus, except for an area on the westerly side of the locus and an area in the southwesterly corner of the locus.2

Relevant zoning. Section 3.223 of the town's zoning by-law (by-law) defined the FPC district as follows:

"those geographical areas hereinafter delineated which by virtue of their relationship to components of the natural hydrology of the Town of Amherst, have substantial importance to the protection of life and property against the hazards of floods, erosion, and pollution, and in general are essential to the public health, safety, and welfare. Those geographical areas include flood prone areas, natural water storage areas adjacent to ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands as well as reservoirs."

Sections 3.2231 and 3.2232 of the by-law define the FPC district as including "all land within a minimum of 75 feet horizontally of the crest of the bank of the Mill River," and "[a]ll land within a minimum of 50 feet horizontally of the crest of the bank of ... Swamp Brook." Thus, prior to the rezoning, the strips of land on the locus within seventy-five feet of the bank of the Mill River and within fifty feet of Swamp Brook were included in the FPC district under the authority of these provisions of the by-law.

The rezoning decision. In 2002, a citizen's petition for rezoning a significant additional portion of the locus to an FPC district was presented and approved at town meeting.3 This overlay zone limited development of the land.4 This action subsequently was challenged in a complaint, before the Land Court, alleging that the zoning map change violated the plaintiffs' Federal and State Constitutional rights, violated the Zoning Act (G.L. c. 40A), was unlawful spot zoning, and was null and void as the map change was based upon unreliable documentation and did not amend the text of the by-law, and that the FPC district violated the uniformity requirement of the Zoning Act. After a six-day bench trial, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding in essence that the amendment was invalid on the grounds that it constituted spot zoning and conflicted with the Zoning Act by improperly singling out the locus for more restrictive zoning than its surrounding area without a rational basis in any legitimate objective of the Zoning Act. The judge agreed with the town that the motives of the amendment's supporters and the information upon which town meeting based its actions and its vote may not be examined in determining the validity of the action taken, although a judge could look into and determine the validity of the amendment itself.5

Limits on power of the town to establish zoning districts. In general, a municipality is given broad authority to establish zoning districts regulating the use and improvement of the land within its borders. See, e.g., Board of Appeals of Hanover v. Housing Appeals Comm., 363 Mass. 339, 359, 294 N.E.2d 393 (1973) (holding that "the zoning power is one of a ... town's independent municipal powers included in art. 89, § 6's broad grant of powers to adopt ordinances or by-laws for the protection of the public health, safety, and general welfare"). See also Durand v. IDC Bellingham, LLC, 440 Mass. 45, 50, 793 N.E.2d 359 (2003) (Durand); W.R. Grace & Co.—Conn. v. City Council of Cambridge, 56 Mass.App.Ct. 559, 567, 779 N.E.2d 141 (2002) (W.R. Grace & Co.—Conn.). The exercise of broad legislative powers granted to municipalities under the Home Rule Amendment (art. 89 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution) is limited by whether the enactment violated State law or any other constitutional protections. See Durand, supra at 53-55, 793 N.E.2d 359 (no statutory violation where a town followed the procedure for amending a municipal zoning ordinance set forth in G.L. c. 40A); Van Renselaar v. Springfield, 58 Mass. App.Ct. 104, 108, 787 N.E.2d 1148 (2003), quoting from Rando v. North Attleborough, 44 Mass.App.Ct. 603, 606, 692 N.E.2d 544 (1998) (spot zoning "violates the uniformity requirements of G.L. c. 40A, § 4, and `constitutes a denial of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the State and Federal Constitutions'"). The touchstone is whether the enactment falls within the broad police powers of a town to promote the public good and safety. See Durand, supra at 52, 793 N.E.2d 359 (reviewing whether the amendment "was an arbitrary or unreasonable exercise of police power having no substantial relationship to the public health, safety, or general welfare"); W.R. Grace & Co.— Conn. v. City Council of Cambridge, supra at 565, 779 N.E.2d 141 (viewing the police power and spot zoning arguments "as raising essentially a single issue, i.e., whether the amendments were a legitimate exercise of the city's authority under the Zoning Act").

A court should not invalidate a legislative decision of a town based upon the alleged motive the town had in enacting the legislation. See Durand, 440 Mass. at 51, 57, 793 N.E.2d 359 (deferring to the legislative findings and choices of the local legislative body without regard to motive). If the action is otherwise justified, the actual reason for the enactment, not to mention the motivation of the sponsors of the action, is not relevant. See W.R. Grace & Co.-Conn., 56 Mass.App.Ct. at 568, 779 N.E.2d 141 ("validity of the zoning amendments does not turn on the motives of their supporters"); Hanna v. Framingham, 60 Mass.App.Ct. 420, 426, 802 N.E.2d 1061 (2004) ("We undertake no inquiry into the possible motives of the legislative body").

Burden of proof. The party challenging an amendment as spot zoning has the heavy burden of showing that it conflicts with the enabling act. See W.R. Grace & Co.-Conn., 56 Mass.App.Ct. at 566-567, 779 N.E.2d 141. "[C]haracterizing `a challenger's burden as one of proof beyond reasonable doubt may not be instructive. A better characterization is that the challenger must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the zoning regulation is arbitrary and unreasonable, or substantially unrelated to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.' Johnson v. Edgartown, 425 Mass. 117, 121 (1997)." Van Renselaar v. Springfield, 58 Mass.App.Ct. at 108, 787 N.E.2d 1148 (Van Renselaar). The applicable principles are of judicial deference and restraint, not abdication. See National Amusements, Inc. v. Boston, 29 Mass.App.Ct. 305, 309, 560 N.E.2d 138 (1990). However, as an action of the local legislative body, the zoning amendment is entitled to every presumption in its favor, and the reviewing court should not substitute its own judgment. See Van Renselaar, supra. If the reasonableness of the amendment is even "fairly debatable," it will be upheld. See Crall v. Leominster, 362 Mass. 95, 103, 284 N.E.2d 610 (1972); W.R. Grace & Co.-Conn., supra at 566, 779 N.E.2d 141; Van Renselaar, supra.

Spot zoning. To succeed in a challenge to a zoning enactment on the grounds of spot zoning or, in this case, reverse spot zoning,6 the plaintiffs must show that the affected parcel has been singled out for more restrictive treatment than surrounding land which is indistinguishable, thereby "producing, without rational planning objectives, zoning classifications that fail to treat like properties in a uniform manner." W.R. Grace & Co.-Conn. v. Boston, 56 Mass.App.Ct. at 570, 779 N.E.2d 141, quoting from National Amusements, Inc., 29 Mass.App.Ct. at 312, 560 N.E.2d 138. The parcel of land at issue here differs from the majority of the surrounding area because it is traversed by waterways, which previously had been designated within the FPC district and were important considerations in flood control regulations. See Van Renselaar, 58 Mass.App.Ct. at 106, 109, 787 N.E.2d 1148 (considering, among other circumstances, the characteristics of the locus). Furthermore, the underlying zoning districts differ. Thus, it could be said that in revising the FPC district line, the town did not commit spot zoning as it did not treat similar properties differently. See Fabiano v. Boston...

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