Fairlawns Cemetery Ass'n v. Zoning Commission of Town of Bethel

Decision Date08 January 1952
Citation86 A.2d 74,138 Conn. 434
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesFAIRLAWNS CEMETERY ASS'N, Inc. v. ZONING COMMISSION OF TOWN OF BETHEL et al. Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut

George F. Lowman, Stamford, with whom was Morgan P. Ames, Stamford, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Philo C. Calhoun, Bridgeport, with whom, on the brief, were William Hanna and Burton F. Sherwood, Danbury, for the appellees (defendants).


INGLIS, Judge.

The plaintiff plans to establish a cemetery on land which it owns in the town of Bethel. The zoning regulations of the town purport to prohibit cemeteries in the area where the property is located. In this action a judgment is sought declaring that the zoning regulations are invalid or that, if they are valid, the plaintiff has the right to maintain the cemetery as a nonconforming use.

The finding is not subject to correction. The facts which are necessary to the decision are the following: The plaintiff was organized in 1938 as The Mason Cemetery Association, Inc., for the purpose of "maintaining and operating a cemetery for the burial of deceased members of the Masonic order in good standing and their families and relatives, and for the burial of such other human remains as may subsequently be provided for by the Board of Directors." It acquired title to the thirty-three and six-tenths acres of land in Bethel which are involved in this litigation and prepared them for use as a cemetery. All of the funds used for the project were furnished by Donald Coster, and after his sudden death in the fall of 1938 all work ceased. Sometime thereafter the association was put into receivership. In the complaint in the receivership action, the association itself alleged: "The purposes for which the plaintiff was formed as a corporation have completely failed of their object and such corporation has abandoned its business." On September 19, 1945, the receiver conveyed the land to Loomis J. Grossman and Theodore Sylvan, and the corporation franchise was turned over to new directors. On August 15, 1946, an agreement to sell the property to R. Burchard Hults, James L. Dowsey and Alfred P. Walker was executed. This agreement provided that upon payment of a portion of the purchase price a deed was to be placed in escrow on September 16, 1946, and was to be delivered to the purchasers upon the payment of the balance of the purchase price on January 15, 1947. The deed was in fact delivered to the purchasers on October 14, 1946. It made no reference to a cemetery, nor did it purport to limit the use of the property to cemetery purposes.

At the time the contract of sale was entered into, the property was run down and overgrown by weeds and shrubbery, the roads had breaks in their surface and were out of repair, and the pond was filled with weeds and undergrowth. Between that time and October 16, 1946, Hults, Dowsey and Walker cleared the roads and the pond at their own expense. On October 16, they deeded the property to the association to be used for cemetery purposes only. On the same day they became the directors of the association, the name of which was changed to Fairlawns Cemetery Association, Inc. A map showing burial plots in a small portion of the property known as Section 1 was adopted by the association, and a price list was approved and delivered to brokers to assist them in making sales. No burial plots have ever been sold, no burials have ever been made in the property, and the receiving vault has never been used as such. Shortly after October 16, because of the pendency of the move to adopt zoning regulations presently to be detailed, the association discontinued its plan for the sale of lots, except that on November 12 it erected on its premises a large sign reading "Fairlawns Cemetery, Non-sectarian."

In August, 1946, the association applied to the town of Bethel for permission to erect a crematory on the property in question. The application met with a great deal of objection from the townspeople and was later withdrawn. Prior to September, 1946, the town had no zoning ordinance. Late in that month a zoning commission was duly appointed by the selectmen, and on October 16 there was published a notice of a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to be held November 6. This notice incorporated a draft of the proposed ordinance. After the hearing on November 6, the zoning commission adopted an ordinance, effective as of November 13, radically different in content from the one proposed. Acting upon advice of counsel that irregularities of procedure might have invalidated the ordinance so adopted, the commission properly and lawfully re-enacted the ordinance on March 25, 1947.

The ordinance as finally adopted purported (Art. 2) to cover the entire town of Bethel with the exception of three areas: the village of Bethel, which was already zoned; a tract 2000 feet wide lying on both sides of the railroad and extending about one and three-fourths miles from the village line on the north to the Redding town line on the south; and a small triangular piece of swamp land north of the village. The entire area zoned is classified as a residence and business zone, and no premises located therein are to be used for any of fourteen specified purposes (Art. 3), among them being "Crematory or cemetery." The ordinance also provides (Art. 5, § 2): "Except as herein provided, any non conforming use existing at the time of the adoption of these regulations may be continued."

The town of Bethel has within its area three existing cemeteries, one Catholic and two nonsectarian. The population of the town is about 4500, and growth in population for the last twenty-five years has been slow, although slightly accelerated in the last five years. The burial facilities of the town are amply sufficient for any reasonably foreseeable growth of the town in the future. The property owned by the plaintiff is surrounded by residences and small farms and is within sight of at least twelve such residences. The use of the property as a cemetery would result in an increase in traffic on the highways in the vicinity and, in consequence, a decrease in safety for the residents. It also would substantially lessen the values of residence property.

The trial court concluded that the zoning ordinance is valid and constitutional; that the property in question was never used as a cemetery; that, if a cemetery was effectively created in 1938, the use of the property for cemetery purposes was abandoned after Coster's death; and that the acts of the individual owners and the plaintiff after August, 1946, did not effect a use of the land as a cemetery which was a nonconforming use at the time of the adoption of the zoning ordinance.

The validity of the zoning regulations in question depends very largely upon whether they meet the requirements of the enabling act, § 837 of the General Statutes. Bishop v. Board of Zoning Appeals, 133 Conn. 614, 619, 53 A.2d 659. That section reads in part as follows: "Such regulations shall be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan and shall be designed to lessen congestion in the streets; to secure safety from fire, panic and other dangers; to promote health and the general welfare; to provide adequate light and air; to prevent the overcrowding of land; to avoid undue concentration of population and to facilitate the adequate provision for transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks and other public requirements. Such regulations shall be made with reasonable consideration as to the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses, and with a view to conserving the value of buildings and encouraging the most appropriate use of land throughout such municipality." The gist of this is that zoning regulations enacted pursuant thereto must possess two characteristics. First, they must be expressive of a plan which is comprehensive. Second, they must promote the public welfare, which is another way of saying that they must be within the police power.

The word "comprehensive" as used in the statute means "[i]ncluding much; comprising many things; having a wide scope." Webster's New International Dictionary (2d Ed.). Accordingly, to be valid, a zoning ordinance must be one which is designed to further a plan which relates to a substantial area of the municipality enacting it and to the reasonable needs of the community, both at present and in the foreseeable future. There must be a plan and that plan must be comprehensive as to territory, public needs and time. State ex rel. Spiros v. Payne, 131 Conn. 647, 652, 41 A.2d 908; Bishop v. Board of Zoning Appeals, supra, 133 Conn. 618, 53 A.2d 659; Bartram v. Zoning Commission, 136 Conn. 89, 93, 68 A.2d 308; Kuehne v. Town Council, 136 Conn. 452, 460, 72 A.2d 474. The zoning regulations in question are clearly expressive of a plan to maintain the predominantly residential character of the town but still permit the less objectionable forms of business. The plan is not applied to a narrowly restricted area or for a limited time. In terms, the regulations cover nearly the whole town of Bethel and are in effect for an indefinite time. They leave some districts of the town open for uses other than business and residential. They therefore satisfy the requirement of the statute that such regulations be in accordance with a comprehensive plan.

It is, of course, fundamental that no zoning regulations are valid unless they are within the police power. They must bear a reasonable relation to the public welfare and that relation must be within at least one of the particulars specified in the enabling statute. Strain v. Mims, 123 Conn. 275, 285, 193 A. 754; Fitzgerald v. Merard Holding Co., 110 Conn. 130, 138, 147 A. 513, 54 A.L.R. 361; Nectow v. Cambridge, 277 U.S. 183, 188, 48 S.Ct. 447, 72 L.Ed. 842. It must be borne in mind that the courts will not substitute their...

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