Island Properties, Inc. v. Martha's Vineyard Commission

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtBefore HENNESSEY; KAPLAN
Citation372 Mass. 216,361 N.E.2d 385
Parties, 7 Envtl. L. Rep. 20,342 ISLAND PROPERTIES, INC., trustee, v. MARTHA'S VINEYARD COMMISSION. Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk
Decision Date23 March 1977

Page 385

361 N.E.2d 385
372 Mass. 216, 7 Envtl. L. Rep. 20,342
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk.
Argued Dec. 10, 1976.
Decided March 23, 1977.

William G. Young, Boston (Daniel L. Goldberg, Boston, with him), for plaintiff.

Donald L. Connors, Boston (H. Theodore Cohen, Boston, with him), for defendant.

Catherine A. White, Asst. Atty. Gen., for the Secretary of Communities and Development, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


KAPLAN, Justice.

The plaintiff's predecessors, holding title to land located within the boundaries of the town of Oak [372 Mass. 217] Bluffs on the island of Martha's Vineyard, obtained approval from the local planning board for definitive subdivision plans which were consistent with the town's zoning by-law. Shortly thereafter the Legislature passed and the Governor approved St.1974, c. 637, 'An Act protecting land and water on Martha's Vineyard.' The question posed by this case is whether various regulatory controls adopted pursuant to the statute by the defendant Martha's Vineyard Commission, some of them more restrictive than the town by-law, should be held to apply to the locus, or whether--to the contrary--the locus is shielded from those controls by the familiar provisions of G.L. c. 40A, § 7A (quoted at n. 18 below), 1 which, when applicable, has the effect of 'freezing' the local zoning ordinances or by-laws in favor of the developer for seven years from the date of his submission of the preliminary subdivision plan. We hold that § 7A does not govern in the

Page 386

situation presented by this case, and that the controls under chapter 637 apply here as they do to other developments proposed for areas on Martha's Vineyard within the authority of the commission. This is essentially because § 7A deals with amendments by local authorities of the local zoning provisions, and is not directed to standards and regulations, authorized by the State legislation, having regional or Statewide scope or significance affecting such local provisions.

1. This action for a declaration of rights was commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk and was reserved and reported to the full bench, without decision, by a single justice of this court upon the pleadings and a statement of agreed facts with voluminous exhibits. It appears from the record that the locus, comprising the undeveloped parcels called Waterview III, IV, and V, borders on and is in the vicinity of Sengekontacket Pond, a major tidal pond. The relevant preliminary subdivision plans were submitted on October 25, 1973, with [372 Mass. 218] the formalities required by the Subdivision Control Law, G.L. c. 41, §§ 81K--81GG (the law having been 'accepted' by Oak Bluffs), and definitive plans followed on April 12, 1974, and were approved by the town planning board on June 7, 1974. The plan contemplated some 850 building lots on 507 acres. The town by-law as of October 25, 1973, prescribed, among other things, a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet; setback of twenty-five feet from street line (with certain provisos) and of twenty feet from side lot and rear property lines; and height limitations of thirty-two feet and two and one-half stories. (These provisions applied alike to the single residence and general residence districts.)

The impingement of chapter 637 on the plaintiff's proposed development and the occasion for seeking a declaration become apparent from the terms of the statute and the steps taken thereunder, to which we turn. 2

2. Chapter 637 has novel, interlocking provisions which call for some exposition. Cf. American Law Institute, A Model Land Development Code, art. 7 (1976). The law was introduced in substance as 1974 House Doc. No. 5567 under Governor Sargent's sponsorship in March, 1974, was enacted with changes, and was approved on July 27, 1974. 3 [372 Mass. 219] It followed a proposal with similar objectives and the same sponsorship that had been introduced in August, 1973 (1973 House Doc. No. 7280). 4 The legislation was intended to respond (as the General Court could believe) to the threat of destruction of the ecological and other special values of the island through steeply increasing commercial developments of its land and water resources which would not be adequately contained or regulated merely by action that could or would be initiated by the individual towns.

Page 387

Enacted as an emergency law effective immediately, chapter 637 5 declared that to prevent irreversible damage to the island and ultimately to its economy it was necessary to establish a regional commission with the purposes and powers set forth in the act. § 1. Martha's Vineyard Commission 6 consists of twenty-one members: one selectman or designee of the selectmen of each of the six towns comprising the island; nine persons elected at large, island-wide; four, not principally resident on the island, appointed by the Governor (who have voice but not vote); one county commissioner; and one member of the Governor's cabinet or designee 7 appointed by the Governor. § 2. 8 For twelve months following the organization of the commission,[372 Mass. 220] or until forty-five days after approval by the Secretary of Communities and Development of standards and criteria (described below), whichever period was shorter, a moratorium was imposed on the granting by town authorities of permits for developments on any considerable scale (a development permit being defined as any permission required to construct or alter a building or improve land). §§ 7, 6 (fourth paragraph). (In fact, the commission was organized on December 5, 1974; approval of the standards and criteria occurred on September 8, 1975, terminating the moratorium on October 23, 1975.)

Within a year of the enactment the commission was to formulate and submit to the Secretary for his approval two sets of standards and criteria: one for use by the commission in determining whether a proposed district of the island was of 'critical planning concern' (CPC), and a second for use by the commission and town authorities in deciding whether a proposed development was a 'development . . . of (i.e. having) regional impact' (DRI). § 8.

The commission was empowered, after notice to the towns involved and notice and public hearing pursuant to G.L. c. 30A, § 2 (State Administrative Procedure Act), to designate CPC districts in accordance with the relevant approved standards and criteria. Such a district must qualify in any case as possessing unique resources (natural, historical, ecological, scientific, or cultural) of regional or Statewide significance; or as having marginal soil or topographic conditions rendering it unsuitable for intense development; or as being significantly affected by, or having significant impact on, an existing or proposed major public facility (as defined) 9 or other area of major public investment. A procedure is described for the nomination [372 Mass. 221] of CPC districts. 10 The commission is required to explain its actions with regard to nominations. If it decides to designate a CPC district, it must accompany the designation with a specification of guidelines for the development of the district, based on considerations such as possible water, air, land or noise pollution, burdening of water supply, beach erosion or damage to the littoral ecology or wetlands. § 9.

Page 388

Upon designation of a CPC district, each town whose boundaries include any part of the district may, subject to approval or amendment by the commission, adopt regulations conforming to the applicable guidelines, having for the purpose all the powers it otherwise had under the General Laws; if a town fails to propose regulations, the commission on notice and hearing formulates them for the town. § 11. These regulations (and regulations specifying conditions for DRI's: see below) may include any type of regulation which may be adopted by any city or town under the General Laws as noted in the margin; 11 they may differ from the otherwise relevant local development ordinances and by-laws in their scope and magnitude when the latter are clearly restrictive of the commission's purposes. 12 § 3. Whether or not the regulations for a CPC [372 Mass. 222] district were proposed by a town, they are incorporated into the town's ordinances and by-laws (without regard to G.L. c. 40, § 32, as to validation of by-laws by the Attorney General) and are in the first instance to be administered by the town as if they were part of its development ordinances and by-laws. § 11; cf. § 10.

As noted, the commission also submits standards and criteria for the Secretary's approval specifying the types of DRI's--that is, developments which, because of their magnitude or the magnitude of their effect on the surrounding environment, are likely to present development issues significant to more than one town. § 13 (listing considerations). When a permit for a development is sought from town authorities, they determine initially whether it is a DRI, and, if so, refer the application for the permit to the commission. § 14. The commission then, on notice and hearing, decides whether to allow the town to issue the permit; it is to consider probable benefits and detriments, the relation of the development to the objectives of the general plan of the town or of the island, the consistency of the development with the town's by-laws or with the regulations of any relevant CPC district, and, in case of inconsistency with by-laws, whether an inconsistency is justified. § 15 (as amended by St.1976, c. 219, § 2). The commission's consideration is not limited to the situation of the town that referred the development proposal, but extends to the impact on areas within other towns, as well as to examination of available alternative locations on the...

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