Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Groton

Decision Date19 November 2002
Docket Number(SC 16501)
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesCUMBERLAND FARMS, INC. v. TOWN OF GROTON

Borden, Norcott, Katz, Palmer and Zarella, Js. Michael A. Zizka, with whom was Kari L. Olson, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Eileen Duggan, with whom was Andrew Brand, for the appellee (defendant).

Opinion

PALMER, J.

The plaintiff, Cumberland Farms, Inc., appeals1 from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the defendant, the town of Groton (town). The plaintiff initiated the present action against the town, alleging that the denial of its application for a zoning variance by the town's zoning board of appeals (board) effected an inverse condemnation2 of its property entitling the plaintiff to compensation under the takings clauses of the fifth amendment to the United States constitution3 and article first, § 11, of the constitution of Connecticut.4 The trial court, Martin, J., granted the town's motion for summary judgment, concluding that there was no genuine issue of material fact and that the town was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Practice Book § 17-49. In so concluding, the court determined that the plaintiff was barred, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, from litigating certain factual issues that had been decided by the board in denying the plaintiff's variance application and that ostensibly had been decided by the trial court, Purtill, J., in denying the plaintiff's administrative appeal from the adverse decision of the board. On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court, Martin, J., improperly gave preclusive effect to the resolution of certain factual issues by the board and the court, Purtill, J. We agree with the plaintiff that the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not bar the plaintiff from litigating, in its inverse condemnation action, any factual issues that are pertinent to its inverse condemnation claim. In light of our conclusion, which compels us to reverse the judgment of the trial court, Martin, J., and remand the case for a determination on the merits of the plaintiff's inverse condemnation claim, we must decide a second issue raised by the plaintiff, namely, whether the court, Hon. D. Michael Hurley, judge trial referee (Hurley, J.), improperly granted the town's motion to strike the plaintiff's case from the jury docket. The plaintiff challenges the decision to grant the town's motion to strike the plaintiff's case from the jury docket, claiming that the plaintiff's inverse condemnation claim gives rise to a right to a jury trial under article first, § 19, of the constitution of Connecticut.5 We reject the plaintiff's claim regarding its right to a jury trial and, accordingly, affirm the decision of the court, Hurley, J., to grant the town's motion to strike the plaintiff's case from the jury docket.

This appeal marks the second occasion that we have had these parties before us in this matter. In Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Groton, 247 Conn. 196, 197, 201-202, 719 A.2d 465 (1998), we concluded that the board's denial of the plaintiff's application for a variance constituted a final decision that enabled the plaintiff to maintain this separate and independent inverse condemnation action without first pursuing its administrative appeal to completion. Our opinion in that case sets forth the following facts relating to the plaintiff's variance application. "[T]he plaintiff . . . owns land with a building, other structures and improvements in Groton. The building is more than twenty years old and was used as a car repair garage and gasoline service station since before the area was zoned residential by the ... town. Three underground gasoline storage tanks are also located on the property. The car repair use of the building was abandoned in 1979. The remainder of the building continues to be used to sell gasoline and, to a limited extent, snacks and sundries.

"To comply with environmental laws and regulations, the plaintiff's property requires substantial upgrading. To offset the costs of these improvements, the plaintiff applied to the . . . board . . . for a variance to the zoning regulations so that the [existing] nonconforming use of the property could be expanded to include a convenience store, as well as the existing gasoline service station." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 198. The board denied the plaintiff's variance application after a hearing, stating as its reasons: "No hardship [was] shown. [The] [v]ariance request did not meet the criteria of [§ 8.5-8]6 of the [1996] town ... zoning regulations. [The] [p]roposed expansion to a convenience store . . . was considered financial. Also, [the] applicant is presently making reasonable use of the property. In addition, the applicant purchased [the] property knowing the nature of the nonconform[ity]."

Thereafter, the plaintiff appealed from the board's denial of its variance application to the Superior Court; see General Statutes (Rev. to 1995) § 8-8 (b);7 claiming that the board's decision was illegal, arbitrary and an abuse of its discretion. The plaintiff contended, inter alia, that the board improperly had declined to credit certain expert opinion indicating that the combined effect of state environmental regulations and the town's zoning regulations was a diminishment in the value of the plaintiff's property such that the value was "practically destroy[ed] . . . for any of the uses to which it could reasonably be put . . . ." The court, Purtill, J., rejected the plaintiff's claim, explaining that it was bound, under the deferential standard of review applicable to appeals from the administrative decisions of zoning boards of appeals,8 to deny the plaintiff's appeal if any one of the reasons articulated by the board was supported by the record. The court, Purtill, J., then examined each of those reasons and concluded that each reason was "reasonably supported by the record." Consequently, the court, Purtill, J., rendered judgment denying the plaintiff's appeal. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a petition for certification to appeal to the Appellate Court, which that court denied.

During the pendency of the plaintiff's appeal from the board's denial of its variance application, the plaintiff commenced the present action, alleging that the board's denial of its application for a variance constituted an inverse condemnation entitling it to compensation under the takings clauses of the federal and state constitutions.9 The plaintiff claimed that the cost of upgrading its property to conform with environmental laws and regulations made it economically unfeasible to continue to use the property under the existing, limited, nonconforming use or to change the use of the property to a conforming use. The plaintiff further claimed that the property was not suitable for redevelopment for uses permitted under the town's zoning regulations because a gasoline station previously had been operated on the property.

The town moved to dismiss the plaintiff's inverse condemnation claim on the ground that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction owing to the plaintiff's pending administrative appeal. The court, Hurley, J., granted the town's motion to dismiss10 and rendered judgment thereon, from which the plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court affirmed. Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Groton, 46 Conn. App. 514, 520, 699 A.2d 310 (1997). We granted the plaintiff's petition for certification to appeal to this court; Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Groton, 243 Conn. 936, 702 A.2d 641 (1997); and thereafter reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court, concluding that "the board's denial of the variance application constituted a final decision that enabled the plaintiff to maintain an independent inverse condemnation action against the town for an alleged unconstitutional taking without first pursuing its administrative appeal to completion." Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Groton, supra, 247 Conn. 201-202.

After the case was remanded to the Superior Court, the plaintiff filed a claim for a jury trial pursuant to General Statutes § 52-215.11 The town moved to strike the plaintiff's case from the jury docket, contending that an inverse condemnation claim is equitable in nature and, therefore, does not give rise to a constitutional right to a jury trial.12 The court, Hurley, J., granted the town's motion to strike the plaintiff's case from the jury docket.

Thereafter, the town moved for summary judgment, claiming that no material facts were in dispute because the doctrine of collateral estoppel operated to bar the plaintiff from: (1) relitigating certain factual issues that the board had resolved in denying the plaintiff's variance application; and (2) litigating certain factual issues that, according to the town, had been litigated and decided by the court, Purtill, J., in denying the plaintiff's appeal from the board's denial of the plaintiff's variance application. The town further maintained that, on the basis of the apparent resolution of those factual issues by the board and the court, Purtill, J., the town was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The court, Martin, J., granted the town's motion for summary judgment, reasoning that, "[b]ecause the viability of a taking claim based on the denial of a variance application hinges on whether the denial has deprived the property of any reasonable use, the determination of the issue of reasonable use is necessary and essential to the taking claim for purposes of issue preclusion." After reviewing the memorandum of decision on the merits of the plaintiff's appeal from the board's denial of the plaintiff's variance application and the record of the proceedings before the board, the court, Martin, J., concluded that "[t]here [was] ample evidence . . . that the issue [of reasonable use] was raised, litigated and decided in both proceedings."...

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