North Landers Corp. v. Planning Bd. of Falmouth

Decision Date03 February 1981
Citation416 N.E.2d 934,382 Mass. 432
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Stephen T. Keefe, Jr., Quincy, for plaintiff.

H. Theodore Cohen, Boston (Edward W. Farrell, Falmouth, with him), for defendant.


LIACOS, Justice.

North Landers Corporation (North Landers) appealed the judgment of a Superior Court judge who upheld the disapproval by the planning board of Falmouth (board) of its definitive plan for a subdivision of land in the town of Falmouth. The Appeals Court reversed the judgment of the Superior Court judge, annulled the action of the board, and directed that a further public hearing be held by the board for the purpose of taking "final action" on the plan submitted. NORTH LANDERS CORP. V. PLANNING BD. OF FALMOUTH, --- MASS.APP. ---, 400 N.E.2D 273 (1980)A. We granted the board's application for further appellate review. As will appear, for reasons other than those stated by the Appeals Court, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court. We further order that the matter be remanded to the board by the Superior Court judge with directions that the board make a detailed statement of its reasons for disapproval of the plan, as required by G.L. c. 41, § 81U.

On January 26, 1977, North Landers filed a preliminary plan for subdivision of 447.36 acres of land in the Hatchville area of Falmouth. The board rejected the preliminary plan on March 25, 1977, citing reasons of "(i)nadequate access, lack of plans and proof of adequate water supply and pressure, hazards of proximity to the divided highway, an overlong dead end road within the subdivision and the poor condition of the town way onto which the subdivision traffic would put an undue burden, in addition to possible sanitary problems which have been cited by the Health Director." On February 24, 1977, prior to the board's disapproval of the preliminary plan, North Landers filed a definitive plan. 1 After a public hearing on April 19, 1977, the board voted to disapprove the definitive plan, this time citing its reasons for disapproval as "(i)nadequate access, the inadequacy of Sam Turner Road and other reasons." North Landers took an appeal from this decision to the Superior Court. G.L. c. 41, § 81BB. We summarize the facts found by the trial judge.

The proposed subdivision encompasses approximately 447 woodland acres located in a hilly ridge area of Falmouth. Essentially an oblong, 3,400 feet wide by 6,000 feet long, the subdivision is bounded to the north and south by dense woods. (A sketch showing the relevant features of the final subdivision plan may be found as an appendix to this opinion.) A divided major highway, Route 28, forms the westerly border of the land area. On the east, a neck of land extends to Sam Turner Road, a public way. The portion of the locus which abuts Sam Turner Road is 800 feet long. There is no access from the subdivision to Route 28, which is a limited access highway. North Landers' plan includes a single access road through the eastern neck of the subdivision to the public way, Sam Turner Road. This access road, called Hill and Plain Road, is a divided road laid out to be sixty feet wide with a twelve-foot median strip. 2

The subdivision plan calls for partition of the 447 acres into 447 buildable lots, with 144 acres to be used for open space, including an eighty-acre public golf course. Major and minor roads within the subdivision, including the access through Hill and Plain Road, would cover 43,127 feet. The judge estimated that 1,100 to 1,400 people will reside in the finished development; residents' automobiles will number at least 500. The record is silent as to how many additional automobiles the public golf course might draw into the subdivision. Using Hill and Plain Road, the single access road located at the eastern extreme of the proposed subdivision, homeowners on the western end of the development would need to travel two miles of subdivision roads before entering the public way.

The subdivision roads ultimately would funnel traffic through the Hill and Plain Road access to the public way, Sam Turner Road. Sam Turner Road, although laid out to a width of forty feet, is presently paved only eighteen feet across. Because the road winds and dips, it would have to be straightened and widened in order to accommodate the traffic from the proposed subdivision.

The judge concluded that access to the subdivision through a single access road was inadequate to protect lives and property as delineated under G.L. c. 41, § 81M. 3 He further determined that Sam Turner Road is inadequate to carry the expected traffic generated by the development.

North Landers argues that the judge erred in basing his conclusions on § 17 of the Falmouth subdivision regulations, set forth in the margin. 4 North Landers disputes the judge's conclusion that this section gives due notification to an owner or subdivider that adequate access must be provided or that it will form a basis for the imposition of conditions or disapproval of the submitted plans. It contends instead that the language of § 17 fails the standard of definiteness required by the Subdivision Control Law and developed by earlier decisions of this court. The Appeals Court agreed with these contentions and reversed the judgment on this basis. We do not agree. North Landers also asserts that neither the board nor the judge may consider the condition of a public way outside the subdivision. Lastly, North Landers contends that the board's written decision failed the specificity requirements of G.L. c. 41, § 81U. The Appeals Court did not base its decision on either of these contentions. We agree with the final contention.

I. The Adequacy of Sam Turner Road.

North Landers attacks the board's and the judge's finding that Sam Turner Road is inadequate, on the ground that the Subdivision Control Law does not permit evaluation of ways outside a proposed subdivision. We do not find such a limitation in the statute. The language of § 81M, exhorts a "due regard" for "lessening congestion ... in the adjacent public ways" and "for coordinating the ways in a subdivision with ... the public ways in the city or town in which it is located and with the ways in neighboring subdivisions." 5 The issue of whether a planning board has "the power to disapprove a subdivision plan due to traffic problems and access problems caused not by any inadequacy of the ways set out on the subdivision plan, but rather by inadequacies in the public ways adjacent to or providing access to the proposed development" has been explicitly left open. Canter v. Planning Bd. of Westborough (Canter I), 4 Mass.App. 306, 309, 347 N.E.2d 691 (1976). Although the statute might be argued to be ambiguous in part, see Daley Constr. Co. v. Planning Bd. of Randolph, 340 Mass. 149, 153, 163 N.E.2d 27 (1959), we view the quoted language of the statute to be clear. See Chouinard, petitioner, 358 Mass. 780, 782, 267 N.E.2d 497 (1971); Davey Bros. v. Stop & Shop, Inc., 351 Mass. 59, 63, 217 N.E.2d 751 (1966). Section 81M imposes no such circumscription as North Landers urges. The adequacy of Sam Turner Road was properly considered by the judge. 6

Consideration by the judge of factors pertaining to safety, accessibility, or the increased traffic on Sam Turner Road comports with decisional law in this and other jurisdictions. Factors outside the subdivision may be considered where relevant to the requirements of the statute or of local regulations. See, e. g., Rounds v. Board of Water & Sewer Comm'rs of Wilmington, 347 Mass. 40, 196 N.E.2d 209 (1964) (planning board may condition approval by requiring reasonable construction outside the subdivision to bring water service to it); Hamilton v. Planning Bd. of Lexington, 4 Mass.App. 802, 803, 345 N.E.2d 906 (1976) (where regulations purported to require adequate provision for drainage, board properly rejected plan after consideration of entire watershed area). Contrast G.L. c. 41, § 81Q (local regulation may not require dedication of land within subdivision to public use without just compensation) (emphasis supplied).

Other jurisdictions having subdivision control statutes similar in intent to G.L. c. 41, § 81M, are in agreement that the condition of adjacent public ways must be considered in the board's deliberations. See, e. g., Buena Park v. Boyar, 186 Cal.App.2d 61, 8 Cal.Rptr. 674 (1960); Nicoli v. Planning & Zoning Comm'n of Easton, 171 Conn. 89, 96, 368 A.2d 24 (1976); Arrowhead Dev. Co. v. Livingston County Rd. Comm'n, 92 Mich.App. 31, 283 N.W.2d 865 (1979); In re Pearson Kent Corp. v. Bear, 28 N.Y.2d 396, 399, 322 N.Y.S.2d 235, 271 N.E.2d 218 (1971).

II. The Sufficiency of § 17 of the Board's Regulations.

The essence of North Landers' claim is that the board's regulation 17, requiring "adequate access," is so vague that it fails to give the developer notice of what might be required in order to obtain ultimate approval of its plan. 7 The statute requires that planning boards promulgate reasonable rules and regulations by which prospective developers may know what will be expected in a satisfactory subdivision plan. G.L. c. 41, § 81Q. 8 This court has interpreted § 81Q to require that subdivision regulations must be "comprehensive, reasonably definite, and carefully drafted, so that owners may know in advance what is or may be required of them." Castle Estates, Inc. v. Park & Planning Ed. of Medfield, 344 Mass. 329, 334, 182 N.E.2d 540 (1962). Cf. Pieper v. Planning Bd. of Southborough, 340 Mass. 157, 163 N.E.2d 14 (1959). The rule of Castle Estates has been the touchstone of judicial scrutiny of local regulations for any taint of impermissible vagueness. See Fairbairn v. Planning Bd. of Barnstable, 5 Mass.App. 171, 179, 360 N.E.2d 668 (1977) (rejection of subdivision plan on...

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