New England Estates v. Town of Branford, No. 18132.

Decision Date16 February 2010
Docket NumberNo. 18132.
Citation294 Conn. 817,988 A.2d 229
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesNEW ENGLAND ESTATES, LLC v. TOWN OF BRANFORD et al.

Wesley W. Horton, Hartford and William H. Clendenen, Jr., New Haven, with whom, were Kimberly A. Knox, Hartford and, on the brief, Kevin C. Shea, New Haven, Kenneth J. Bartschi, David A. Reif, Matthew A. Weiner, Hartford, Jonathan M. Freiman, New Haven, Kerry R. Callahan and Daniel R. Canavan, Hartford, for the appellant (named defendant).

Timothy S. Hollister, with whom was Sheila A. Huddleston, Hartford, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Linda L. Morkan, with whom, on the brief, were Stephen R. Humphrey, Brian R. Smith and Jeffrey J. White, Hartford, for the cross appellants (defendants Thomas Santa Barbara, Jr., et al.).

William H. Ethier, West Hartford, Mary Lynn Huett, Kristy M. Rogan, New York City and Thomas F. Geselbracht, Chicago, IL, filed a brief for the National Association of Home Builders et al. as amici curiae.

NORCOTT, KATZ, PALMER, ZARELLA and McLACHLAN, Js.*

McLACHLAN, J.

This appeal and cross appeal, along with the companion cases decided today, Branford v. Santa Barbara, 294 Conn. 785, 988 A.2d 209, 2010 WL 432345 (2010), and Branford v. Santa Barbara, 294 Conn. 803, 988 A.2d 221, 2010 WL 432352 (2010), arise from the named defendant town of Branford's (town)1 exercise of eminent domain with respect to an approximately seventy-seven acre parcel of land, known as 48-86 Tabor Drive. In this action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (§ 1983 action),2 the town appeals3 from the judgment rendered, following a jury trial, in favor of the cited in defendants, Thomas Santa Barbara, Jr., and Frank Perrotti Jr., the owners of the subject property at the time of the taking (owners), and the plaintiff, New England Estates, LLC (New England Estates) a developer that had entered into an option contract with the owners to purchase the property.4 The town claims that: (1) the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because New England Estates and the owners failed to seek first a mandatory injunction for the return of the property, thus rendering their § 1983 action unripe; (2) the judgment in favor of New England Estates was improper because it did not have a compensable interest under the takings clause of the fifth amendment of the federal constitution; (3) because New England Estates and the owners already had recovered just compensation for the taking in their appeal challenging the statement of compensation filed by the town (valuation appeal); see Branford v. Santa Barbara, supra, 294 Conn. 785, 988 A.2d 209; the § 1983 action was barred by the doctrine prohibiting double recovery in general, and, more specifically, barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel, as well as the takings clause itself; (4) the takings clause protects only against takings that are not for a public use and provides no protection against takings that are based on pretext or constitute abuses of power; and (5) the trial court improperly awarded attorney's fees to New England Estates and the owners.5 In their cross appeal, the owners claim that the trial court improperly denied them attorney's fees and costs in connection with the valuation appeal. We reverse the judgment in favor of New England Estates, and reverse the award of attorney's fees to New England Estates. We affirm the judgment in favor of the owners and affirm the award of attorney's fees to the owners for work performed in the § 1983 action. We reverse the denial of attorney's fees to the owners for work performed in connection with the valuation appeal, and remand the matter to the trial court for a determination of reasonable attorney's fees in connection with that case.

The jury reasonably could have found the following relevant facts. The owners purchased the subject property in 1991 at a foreclosure sale. The property was zoned as IG-2 industrial, with a small area designated as R-3 residential. The property also had an overlay zone designation as a special development area. In such an area, special development is allowed consistent with the unique characteristics of the land, when it is established that another zoning district could not be established to accomplish the proposed purpose of the development, and that the proposed use is consistent with any comprehensive plan of development adopted by the planning and zoning commission (zoning commission) for the special development area. In 1988, the property previously also had been designated as a planned development district at the time of an approval of a plan for residential development of the land. The town's future land use plan designated the property for use as moderate to high-density residential.

From approximately 1985 through 1998, the owners operated the town's landfill, which abuts a portion of the property. Since 1991, the landfill has accepted only bulky waste; prior to that point, the landfill had also accepted solid waste. The owners contracted with Fuss and O'Neill, Inc. (Fuss & O'Neill), a consulting engineering company that specializes in, among other things, solid waste management, industrial and hazardous waste management, site plan engineering, environmental engineering, water resources engineering and environmental field services, to ensure that the landfill complied with the regulations and standards established by the state department of environmental protection (department). Fuss & O'Neill performed all required testing of the landfill on a quarterly basis, and prepared annual reports in connection with those assessments. During the fourteen years that the owners operated the landfill, Fuss & O'Neill reported no violations of the department's standards.

In 1988, Codespoti and Associates, P.C. (Codespoti), a landscape design firm, was retained by a prior owner of the property to prepare a site plan application for the residential development of the property. The plan, comprising 298 units and a golf course, was approved by the zoning commission that year. At that time, the town expressed no concerns regarding any potential environmental contamination of the property based on its proximity to the landfill, nor did the town indicate that it had any interest in developing playing fields on the property. The plan was never developed.

In 2001, the owners entered into an option agreement with New England Estates, by which New England Estates agreed to make monthly payments to the owners for the exclusive option to purchase the property for $4.75 million which subsequently was increased by agreement to $4.85 million. Pursuant to the option agreement, New England Estates was responsible for obtaining all necessary permits for the development of the land. New England Estates retained Codespoti to prepare the site plan application for its planned development of the property. Codespoti worked from the plan he had developed in 1988, and made some modifications to it, including reducing the number of units per building from six to four, for a total of 268 units in the development, with a golf course as part of the development. In May, 2002, the town inland wetlands commission granted a five year permit to New England Estates for the proposed development on the property. In March, 2003, New England Estates obtained a permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which was required due to the property's location near a tidal wetlands area. Those two permits represented the limit of New England Estates' success in obtaining approval for the development.

In November, 2002, the zoning commission denied approval for New England Estates' site plan application. In its notice of decision denying the permit, the zoning commission found that the proposed development did not satisfy the requisite standards for creating a new planned development district because the high density of the proposed development was inconsistent with surrounding neighborhoods, which are low and moderate density residential. The zoning commission also found that a multifamily zoning district could have accomplished the same proposed purpose, and further expressed concerns regarding road access and flood control. The notice of decision expressed no concerns and made no findings regarding potential environmental contamination of the property from the landfill, nor did it indicate that the town had any interest in developing playing fields or establishing any other use on the property.

On June 18, 2003, New England Estates submitted a second site plan application, this time proposing an affordable housing development of 354 units.6 In connection with the proposal, New England Estates requested a modification of its inland wetlands permit. Jeffrey Gordon, the president of Codespoti, testified that, with respect to wetlands impact, the only significant difference between the proposal that had received inland wetlands approval in May, 2002, and the June, 2003 proposal was that the June, 2003 proposal was designed in such a way that drainage from the development would have lesser impact on wetlands. Otherwise, the two plans had similar "footprints"; that is, the roadway, the number of buildings and bedrooms, the drainage, soil amendments, the utilities, and the phasing of construction would involve only minor changes, resulting in a slightly smaller "footprint" for the June, 2003 proposed development. The inland wetlands commission declined to grant the modification of the existing permit, and instructed New England Estates that it was required to submit an application for a new inland wetlands permit in connection with the development.

Internal communications among various town actors viewed in conjunction with the timing of the town's actions in response to New England Estate's proposals revealed that the town was not receptive to an affordable housing development. In a memorandum dated October 22, 2002, Shirley...

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