AvalonBay Communities, Inc. v. Plan & Zoning Commission

Decision Date21 May 2002
Docket Number(SC 16619).
Citation260 Conn. 232,796 A.2d 1164
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesAVALONBAY COMMUNITIES, INC. v. PLAN AND ZONING COMMISSION OF THE TOWN OF ORANGE

Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Katz, Palmer and Zarella, Js. Timothy P. Pothin, with whom, on the brief, was Hugh F. Keefe, for the appellant (defendant).

Joseph P. Williams, with whom, on the brief, was Timothy S. Hollister, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Opinion

SULLIVAN, C. J.

This appeal arises out of contempt proceedings brought by the plaintiff, AvalonBay Communities, Inc., against the defendant, the plan and zoning commission of the town of Orange, for its failure to comply with an order of the trial court to impose only reasonable and necessary conditions on the approval of the plaintiff's affordable housing application. The issue to be resolved on appeal is whether, in those contempt proceedings, the trial court had continuing jurisdiction to order the defendant to modify or to rescind certain conditions the defendant had imposed when: (1) the court found that the defendant was not in contempt; and (2) the four month period prescribed by General Statutes § 52-212a1 for opening or setting aside a judgment had lapsed.

This court previously has had occasion to take note of the proceedings underlying this appeal. In AvalonBay Communities, Inc. v. Orange, 256 Conn. 557, 560-61, 775 A.2d 284 (2001), in which we considered a related claim, we noted that "[i]n May, 1997, [the parties] entered into a contract whereby [the plaintiff] was to purchase a parcel of real property located in the town [of Orange] ... comprised of approximately 9.6 acres of land.... Subsequently, in August, 1997, [the plaintiff] filed applications for a wetlands permit and a special use permit, accompanied by a site plan, seeking approval to build on the parcel a luxury apartment complex, a percentage of which would qualify as affordable housing rental units. The town inland wetlands and watercourses commission denied [the plaintiff's] original and revised wetlands permit applications. The [defendant] denied [the plaintiff's] site plan and special use permit application, as well as its subsequent, modified application." "[The plaintiff] appealed from the decision of the [defendant] to the Superior Court. The trial court, Munro, J., sustained [the plaintiff's] appeal under [General Statutes] § 8-30g2 and ordered that the [defendant] approve the modified application for a special permit and site plan pending any reasonable and necessary conditions imposed by [the defendant]." Id., 561 n. 5. Specifically, on August 12, 1999, the court ordered that "the applications pertinent to the modified proposal be granted, conditioned upon [the plaintiff's] continued compliance with the affordable housing statutory mandates; further, the [defendant] may, as a requirement of approval, impose reasonable and necessary conditions, not inconsistent with this decision, for snow removal, traffic controls and local road improvements."

The record in this case also reveals that, on March 7, 2000, the defendant adopted sixteen conditions for the approval of the plaintiff's application. On April 28, 2000, the plaintiff filed this motion for contempt, claiming that several of the conditions were not reasonable, necessary or consistent with the court's prior order.3

It further claimed that: (1) certain conditions were impossible to perform or would require the discretionary approval of another agency; (2) one of the conditions—widening Prindle Hill Road along the entire AvalonBay frontage—would create a traffic hazard; (3) several of the conditions were patently inconsistent with conditions imposed on another development on the same street; and (4) the defendant did not even attempt to meet its burden of proving, pursuant to § 8-30g (g),4 that the conditions met the requirements of that statute or that the conveyance of easements and fee interests to the town did not violate the takings clause of the fifth amendment. The plaintiff requested that the court hold the defendant in civil contempt and that it order the defendant to rescind the conditions.

The trial court held a hearing on the motion for contempt on August 29 and 30, 2000, and September 18, 2000, at which it took testimony and heard arguments. On December 6, 2000, the trial court issued its memorandum of decision, in which it concluded that: condition 2b pertaining to road reconstruction was void because it was impossible to perform; condition 5 requiring an unconditional easement was unreasonably broad in that the easement was required only for snow shelf purposes; condition 2c pertaining to the widening of Prindle Hill Road and condition 8 pertaining to wetlands approval were void as being unreasonable because they required the plaintiff to obtain additional approvals from the wetlands commission, which approvals were unlikely; condition 9 pertaining to installation of a traffic signal was void as being both unnecessary and unreasonable because it required the approval of the town traffic authority, which was unlikely; and condition 10 pertaining to the establishment of a fund for the extension of Edison Road was void as being unnecessary for the project and because there was no basis for ascertaining the reasonableness of the funding formula.

Accordingly, the court ordered the defendant to modify condition 5 to provide that the easement was for snow shelf purposes only, and to rescind conditions 2b, 2c, 8, 9 and 10. The court also ruled that the plaintiff had failed to establish its claim of civil contempt by a preponderance of the evidence because it had not proved that the defendant intentionally had violated the court's order. The defendant appealed from the trial court's judgment to the Appellate Court, and this court transferred the appeal to itself pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-1.

The defendant claims on appeal that, in the absence of a finding of contempt, the trial court lacked continuing jurisdiction to order the defendant to alter the conditions of approval after the passage of the four month period prescribed by § 52-212a for opening or setting aside a judgment.5 Subsumed within this claim is the defendant's assertion that, in the absence of a contempt finding, the plaintiff should have been required to bring a statutory appeal pursuant to either General Statutes § 8-86 or § 8-30g. The defendant also claims that the trial court's order permitting the defendant to impose reasonable and necessary conditions on its approval lacked sufficient clarity to be enforced in contempt proceedings, and that the trial court's order to the defendant to rescind and modify the conditions was, in effect, a modification of its prior order and, therefore, barred by § 52-212a. We conclude that the trial court had continuing jurisdiction "to fashion a remedy appropriate to the vindication of a prior ... judgment"; Connecticut Pharmaceutical Assn., Inc. v. Milano, 191 Conn. 555, 563, 468 A.2d 1230 (1983); pursuant to its inherent powers and that the time limitations imposed by § 52-212a do not apply to the exercise of that jurisdiction. We also conclude that the exercise of that authority in this case was not barred by the availability of other appellate remedies. Finally, we conclude that the court's order to the defendant to modify and rescind the conditions of approval was an effectuation, not a modification, of its prior judgment and was, therefore, within its continuing jurisdiction.

We note preliminarily that the parties disagree as to the appropriate standard of review with respect to all of the defendant's claims. The defendant contends that the question of whether the trial court had the power to issue the order challenged in this case is a pure question of law and that our review is, therefore, plenary. The plaintiff asserts, to the contrary, that our review is limited to whether the trial court abused its discretion in issuing the order. We agree with the defendant. Whether the trial court had the power to issue the order, as distinct from the question of whether the trial court properly exercised that power, is a question involving the scope of the trial court's inherent powers and, as such, is a question of law. See, e.g., Millbrook Owners Assn., Inc. v. Hamilton Standard, 257 Conn. 1, 14, 776 A.2d 1115 (2001) (concluding as matter of law that trial court had inherent power to dismiss case for plaintiff's failure to comply with discovery orders and concluding that trial court abused discretion in dismissing case). Accordingly, our review is plenary.

I

We begin our analysis by addressing the defendant's argument that continuing jurisdiction to enter postjudgment orders after expiration of the four months prescribed by § 52-212a must derive from some source independent of the court's inherent powers, such as a statute,7 an order of injunctive relief,8 or the agreement of the parties,9 and is separate and distinct from the court's equitable authority to vindicate judgments, which, in turn, arises only when the court has made a finding of contempt. Because there was no such independent basis for continuing jurisdiction in this case, the defendant argues, the trial court lacked authority to order it to modify the conditions of approval. We reject this hypertechnical understanding of the trial court's continuing jurisdiction to effectuate prior judgments. We conclude, instead, that the trial court's continuing jurisdiction is not separate from, but, rather, derives from, its equitable authority to vindicate judgments.10 Moreover, we hold that such equitable authority does not derive from the trial court's contempt power, but, rather, from its inherent powers. See Connecticut Pharmaceutical Assn., Inc. v. Milano, supra, 191 Conn. 563 (recognizing "trial court's power to fashion a remedy appropriate to the vindication of a prior consent...

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