Hallenborg v. Town Clerk of Billerica

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtBefore TAURO; CUTTER
Citation275 N.E.2d 525,360 Mass. 513
Decision Date22 November 1971
PartiesRalph I. HALLENBORG et al. v. TOWN CLERK OF BILLERICA et al.

Frederick J. Conroy, Lexington, for petitioners.

Richard K. Donahue, Lowell, for interveners Content Homes, Inc., & others.

Edward J. Owens, Town Counsel, for respondents, submitted a brief.

Joseph P. Collins, Collins, Simmons & Sigourney, Boston, for the Board of Selectmen of Billerica, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


CUTTER, Justice.

Residents and taxpayers of Billerica on October 20, 1969, filed this petition for a writ of mandamus (a) to compel the town clerk to strike from the town zoning by-law a certain amendment (permitting apartment houses in Billerica) adopted on March 29, 1969, and (b) to order the town inspector of buildings to enforce the zoning by-law as it existed prior to March 29, 1969, and to revoke all building permits for apartment houses. Certain holders of building permits for apartment houses, granted under the 1969 amendment, have intervened. A Superior Court judge 'concluded that this is not a proper case for mandamus,' declined to issue the writ, and ordered the petition dismissed. The petitioners appealed from a final judgment dismissing it. The case is before us on the pleadings and the judge's findings.

The disputed portion of the zoning bylaw is § 5.8, Apartments. The section need not be quoted. 1 In sequence, the events leading to the town's vote at its adjourned annual town meeting on March 29, 1969, are summarized below.

The proposed zoning law amendment was advertised for hearing before the planning board on Tuesday, February 25, 1969, at 10 P.M. The advertisements appeared in a local newspaper in the editions of Thursday, February 13, and Thursday, February 20, 1969, each actually published and available on the street on the next prior day. 2 As a consequence, there were only thirteen days between the first actual publication and the day of the hearing.

The findings show that at the hearing 'there was a full and open discussion of the subject matter of apartments.' The meeting was 'well attended' and fifteen speakers addressed the board. Five persons 'registered' in favor of the amendment, with none opposed. On March 22, 1969, the planning board submitted a written report recommending the amendment.

The planning board's report was taken up at the annual town meeting (in connection with art. 68 of the warrant) and the amendment (§ 5.8) was adopted. The Attorney General approved the amendment on May 21, 1969, and it was published. G.L. c. 40, § 32 (as amended through St.1967, c. 308).

Thereafter one intervener in 1969 applied for, and received, building permits for the erection of 265 apartments to be contained in seventeen buildings. In reliance on these permits, there has been an expenditure of about $500,000 and a loan commitment of more than $1,000,000. Other intervening permit holders have spent substantial amounts in proceeding under their permits.

1. The principal question presented is whether the by-law amendment was rendered invalid by the defect in the notice of the planning board hearing which complied with the ten-day requirement in § 18 of the zoning by-law (fn. 2) 'but was in fact one day less than' the fourteen days called for by G.L. c. 40A, § 6. The judge distinguished the notice requirements of § 6 from those governing special permit and similar adjudicatory-type, administrative hearings before a board of appeals (see c. 40A, §§ 4, 17, as amended). See Lane v. Board of Selectmen of Great Barrington, 352 Mass. 523, 526, 226 N.E.2d 238. Cf. Moore v. Cataldo, 356 Mass. 325, 326--327, 249 N.E.2d 578. He ruled that the purpose of the hearing required by c. 40A, § 6, was different, viz. 'that there be a hearing by the (p)lanning (b)oard, with adequate notice to the public so they may attend and present their views, culminating in a report by the (b)oard, to the (t)own (m)eeting, of its recommendations. In the instant case * * * the first notice * * * (occurred thirteen) days before the hearing; the public attended and no objections to Article 68 were noted. The (b) oard's (r)eport was filed and its conclusion was stated * * *. Therefore * * * the basic and predominant purpose of the statute was complied with even though the' first publication appeared too late to comply with § 6. He noted that 'on January 28, 1969, there was posted in the (t)own (c)lerk's office a notice of the (p)lanning (b)oard meeting of February 25, 1969, 3 and (that) this same matter had been presented in 1968 and the (p)lanning (b)oard had acted adversely thereon at that time.' He went on to say, 'The function of the (p)lanning (b)oard is strictly advisory and the (t)own may, in any event, disregard the viewpoint of the * * * (b)oard and act in a manner contrary to what the (b)oard might suggest * * *.' 4 'Ordinarily in the enactment and amendment of ordinances and by-laws, fairly strict compliance by local legislative bodies with prescribed statutory procedures is treated as mandatory. See Rhyne, Municipal Laws, § 9--3; McQuillin, Municipal Corporations (1969 rev.) § 21.04; Rathkopf, Zoning and Planning, p. 8--6; Yokley, Zoning Law and Practice (3d ed. and 1971 Supp.) § 5--6. See also Kitty v. Springfield, 343 Mass. 321, 324--327, 178 N.E.2d 580; Gricus v. Superintendent & Inspector of Bldgs. of Cambridge, 345 Mass. 687, 690--691, 189 N.E.2d 209; Treat v. Town Plan & Zoning Commn. of Orange, 145 Conn. 136, 139, 139 A.2d 601. The principle is not inflexible, however, and a court, in appraising the legal effect of insubstantial noncompliance with procedural details, must consider whether strict compliance is mandatory or only directory (cf. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Acting Commnr. of Ins., 265 Mass. 23, 28--29, 163 N.E. 648; Poremba v. Springfield, 354 Mass. 432, 436--437, 238 N.E.2d 43), and whether an asserted minor noncompliance in fact is significantly inconsistent with, or prejudicial to, the apparent legislative objectives of the prescribed procedures. See discussion and cases cited in Anderson, Am. Law of Zoning, §§ 4.31--4.32; McQuillin, Municipal Corporations (1965 rev.) § 25.249; Id. § 25.67a.

In the judge's findings, there is no suggestion of any intentional failure to give the full notice required by c. 40A, § 6. Indeed, he points out the likelihood that 'everyone in the town, officials and citizens alike, either ignored or were unaware of' the fourteen-day requirement of § 6. Particularly is this likely in view of the existence of the improperly shorter notice requirement (fn. 2) of the town's zoning by-law, with which there was compliance. No findings suggest any substantial prejudice to any petitioner because of the one-day reduction of the length of notice.

The interveners contend that a proper rule to apply would be to require that 'notice requirements * * * be strictly enforced' with respect to 'a decision-making tribunal, such as a board of appeals * * * but * * * only upon a showing of substantial prejudice' with respect to 'notice * * * of a hearing before a tribunal which can (only) recommend but cannot decide.' Some such sensible rule appears to have been applied prior to the 1954 revision (St.1954, c. 368). See Lexington v. Bean, 272 Mass. 547, 550--551, 172 N.E. 867. See also Burlington v. Dunn, 318 Mass. 216, 217--219, 61 N.E.2d 243, 244 (where because the 'planning board could finally settle nothing,' a requirement of 'due notice' of the hearing before that board was interpreted in the light of the circumstance that '(a)ny person interested could present his views to the town meeting later'); Shannon v. Building Inspector of Woburn, 328 Mass. 633, 634--635, 105 N.E.2d 192 (requirement as to contents of planning board report flexibly interpreted).

We recognize that the precise terms about notice in c. 40A, § 6, may affect the principle discussed in the cases just cited. Nevertheless, some flexibility, and the employment of equitable principles in applying c. 40A, § 6, may be necessary with respect to notice of purely advisory proceedings before a town planning board on zoning by-law amendments. Considerations of fairness, and some of the reasoning of the decisions just cited, suggest that amendments of zoning by-laws or ordinances ought not to be set aside lightly as invalid because of trivial procedural defects in their adoption, (a) at the behest of persons who have not shown themselves to be prejudiced significantly by the procedural deficiencies, and (b) at a very great or disproportionate cost to other persons who have relied in good faith upon the by-law as adopted and published. 5

'Mandamus is to some extent a discretionary remedy. In granting the writ, equitable principles concerning discretionary relief may be taken into account. See Village on the Hill, Inc. v. Massachusetts Turnpike Authy., 348 Mass. 107, 119, 202 N.E.2d 602, cert. den. 380 U.S. 955, 85 S.Ct. 1089, 13 L.Ed.2d 971; O'Donnell v. Board of Appeals of Billerica, 349 Mass. 324, 328, 207 N.E.2d 877. See also J. H. Wentworth Co. v. French, 176 Mass. 442, 445, 57 N.E. 789; Hill v. Mayor of Boston, 193 Mass. 569, 574, 79 N.E. 825; Schafer v. Zoning Agent of Bellingham, 351 Mass. 651, 653, 223 N.E.2d 398. 6 On the present record, every equitable consideration requires treating the by-law amendment as valid, at least as applied to the interveners, permit holders who have changed position in reliance upon the by-law as having been properly adopted, particularly where the record, as already noted, gives not the slightest indication of prejudice to any petitioner or to any other person arising from the minor defect in publishing the statutory notice. Even a landowner, who had intended to object at the planning board hearing, still could have had opportunity to object and be heard at the town meeting in opposition...

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