MacLaurin v. City of Holyoke

Decision Date18 August 2016
Docket NumberSJC–11865, SJC–11866.
Citation475 Mass. 231,56 N.E.3d 1254
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court
Parties Robert MacLAURIN & another v. CITY OF HOLYOKE & others. Robert MacLaurin & another v. City of Holyoke & others.

Thomas D. Moore for the plaintiffs.

Kara Lamb Cunha, Holyoke, for the defendants.

The following submitted briefs for amici curiae:

Jason R. Ferenc for Greater Holyoke Rental Housing Association.

Joseph N. Schneiderman for Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts.

Maura Healey, Attorney General, Benjamin K. Golden, Assistant Attorney General, Steven P. Rourke, Special Assistant Attorney General, & Peter Senopoulos for the State Fire Marshal.

Present: GANTS, C.J., SPINA, CORDY, BOTSFORD, DUFFLY, LENK, & HINES, JJ.7

LENK, J.

We are called upon in these consolidated cases to construe G.L. c. 148, § 26I, the residential sprinkler provision, one of a number of provisions requiring the installation of automatic sprinkler systems contained in G.L. c. 148, the fire prevention act. The residential sprinkler provision mandates the installation of automatic sprinklers in new residential buildings of four or more units, and in such existing buildings when they are “ substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction.” See G.L. c. 148, § 26I.

In 2006, the plaintiff, Robert MacLaurin,8 purchased the second of two vacant apartment buildings in the city of Holyoke (city), which he intended to rehabilitate and return to occupancy. As existing residential buildings of four or more units, the buildings were subject to the residential sprinkler provision. MacLaurin contends that the renovations he undertook on the buildings do not meet the statutory standard triggering the requirement that sprinklers be installed. Concluding, to the contrary, that the two buildings had been substantially rehabilitated within the meaning of the residential sprinkler provision, the city's fire chief ordered, without a hearing, that automatic sprinkler systems be installed in each building.

The residential sprinkler provision differs from all of the other automatic sprinkler provisions in the fire prevention act9 in that it contains no statutory right of appeal. After several agencies had declined jurisdiction, MacLaurin filed complaints seeking relief in the nature of certiorari and declaratory judgment, challenging the orders as arbitrary and capricious. Following a remand of the consolidated matters for reconsideration in light of additional facts, which the fire chief concluded had no effect on his decision, a judge of the Housing Court affirmed the chief's orders, and this appeal followed.

The statutory standard that installation of automatic sprinklers is necessary only where an existing multi-unit residential building has been “substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction” is not defined in the residential sprinkler provision or anywhere else in the fire prevention act, and the language does not appear in any other section of the fire prevention act. Moreover, there is no controlling appellate jurisprudence and no applicable Statewide guidance akin to that which has been developed by entities such as the automatic sprinkler appeals board, in considering appeals from the requirement to install sprinklers under other statutory provisions, all of which do include a statutory right of appeal.

In construing the meaning of the statutory standard that installation of automatic sprinklers in existing residential buildings is required only when a building has been “substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction,” we therefore turn to fundamental principles of statutory interpretation. See, e.g., Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n v. Boston, 435 Mass. 718, 719–720, 761 N.E.2d 479 (2002). In doing so, we consider the ordinary meaning of the words the Legislature used, in conjunction with their specialized meaning in certain contexts, the course of the enactment of the automatic sprinkler provisions within the fire prevention act, as well as the goals the Legislature intended to achieve. We conclude that, in order to require the installation of sprinklers in an existing multi-unit residential building, the rehabilitation must be so substantial that the physical structure is rendered “the equivalent of new construction,” i.e., in essence as good as new.10 Where the rehabilitation is suitably substantial in this regard, a corollary is that the cost of installation of automatic sprinklers ordinarily will approximate the cost of installing sprinklers in a comparable newly constructed building.

Although the fire chief's decision states that, after the modifications were complete, the buildings had been “substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction,” the decision neither contains any explicit findings of fact nor sets forth the test used to evaluate the nature of the work done. Given this, coupled with the absence of controlling authority, the Housing Court judge was not in a position to ascertain whether the fire chief's interpretation of G.L. c. 148, § 26I, reasonably reflects the intent and purpose of the residential sprinkler provision, nor could the judge have ascertained whether the application of that interpretation is supported by the facts of record. Accordingly, no determination properly could be reached as to whether the decision was legally erroneous or so devoid of factual support as to be arbitrary and capricious. See State Bd. of Retirement v. Woodward, 446 Mass. 698, 703–704, 847 N.E.2d 298 (2006). Thus, the judgment affirming the fire chief's decision must be vacated and, with the guidance we now provide as to the meaning of “substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction,” the matter remanded to the chief of the city fire department for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.11

Background and prior proceedings.12 The two vacant apartment buildings at issue here were built in the late 1800s, of wood frame construction with brick facade. One, a three-story building on the corner of Essex and Chestnut Streets, has a total of twenty apartments on three floors and two commercial spaces on the ground floor; the other, a four-story building on the corner of Main and Spring Streets, has a total of thirteen apartments on four floors and two commercial spaces on the ground floor.13 Each has sustained fire damage in the past, including while empty. MacLaurin purchased both buildings, which had been boarded and abandoned, with the intent to rehabilitate them and return them to occupancy. He obtained building permits, hired contractors, and undertook the proposed work;14 each portion of the work, such as electrical and plumbing modifications, was approved by the relevant city inspectors as it was completed.

The city adopted G.L. c. 148, § 26I, a “local option” statute, in February, 1996.15

On its face, the city's general application form for a building permit requires that a plan for an automatic sprinkler system be submitted with the application, and it is undisputed that sprinkler plans,16 and modifications to one set of plans, were attached to MacLaurin's permit applications.17 During the course of the several-year period in which the work was being done, MacLaurin submitted to the building inspector several reports from licensed structural engineers stating that the work was not structural, that the buildings were not being “ substantially rehabilitated” within the meaning of G.L. c. 148, § 26I, and thus that the requirement for installation of automatic sprinklers had not been triggered. When the work was essentially complete, MacLaurin sought inspection by the city in order to determine what else remained to be done so that certificates of occupancy could issue. In February, 2012, the city's building commissioner, the assistant building commissioner, and a fire department captain made onsite inspections of each building. The fire chief then issued orders requiring automatic sprinkler systems be installed in each building.

MacLaurin sought review of the fire chief's orders before the State fire marshal, the State building code appeals board, and the automatic sprinkler appeals board; each declined to hear his appeals, citing a lack of jurisdiction.18 MacLaurin then filed complaints seeking relief in the nature of certiorari, G.L. c. 249, § 4, and declaratory judgment, in the Superior Court. The cases were transferred to the Housing Court on joint motions of the parties, and then were consolidated. MacLaurin claimed, among other things, that the fire chief's 2012 orders contained significant factual errors, particularly concerning the scope and nature of the work, such as whether substantial portions of walls and ceilings had been opened so as to have facilitated sprinkler installation. In light of documents attached to MacLaurin's complaint containing factual information that apparently had not been before the fire chief, a Housing Court judge remanded the matter to the city for further investigation and determination whether automatic sprinklers were required. Without conducting a hearing, the fire chief concluded that the additional documents had no bearing on his decision that automatic sprinklers were required, and, a few days after the orders of remand, issued essentially the same orders as he had previously (2013 orders).

In March, 2014, the same Housing Court judge who had ordered the remand conducted a hearing on the fire chief's 2013 orders, and, in July, 2014, the judge issued a decision affirming the orders that automatic sprinklers must be installed. He stated that, “viewed through the lens” of the deferential standard of review applicable in a petition for certiorari, the fire chief's determination was not “so devoid of factual support as to be arbitrary and capricious.” The judge noted that the fire...

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