Sober Housing v. Automatic Sprinkler Bd.

Decision Date12 July 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-P-1089.,05-P-1089.
Citation850 N.E.2d 585,66 Mass. App. Ct. 701
PartiesMASSACHUSETTS SOBER HOUSING CORPORATION v. AUTOMATIC SPRINKLER APPEALS BOARD & another.<SMALL><SUP>1</SUP></SMALL>
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Bruce T. Macdonald, Cambridge, for the plaintiff.

Annapurna Balakrishna, Assistant Attorney General, for Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board.

Cheryl Anne Watson, Arlington, for City of Chelsea.

Present: PERRETTA, BROWN, & KAFKER, JJ.

KAFKER, J.

Massachusetts Sober Housing Corporation (MSHC), a nonprofit organization that operates group housing for recovering substance abusers, appeals from a judgment ordering MSHC to install an automatic sprinkler system in its Chelsea group home pursuant to G.L. c. 148, § 26H. This statute, which applies to any city or town that has voted to accept its provisions, requires "every lodging house or boarding house" to be protected with an adequate system of automatic sprinklers. MSHC argues that its Chelsea property is not a "lodging or boarding house" under G.L. c. 148, § 26H. The city of Chelsea, the State Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board and the Superior Court determined otherwise. We affirm.

Background. MSHC purchases single-family houses in residential neighborhoods and operates them as "sober houses," where men or women recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction may live together in a safe and affordable home environment. MSHC owns each property and leases it to an unincorporated association comprised of the house's residents. The lease is signed by an elected "house president" on behalf of the unincorporated association.

MSHC's properties are run under the Oxford House sober housing model, which has three governing principles. First, an Oxford House must be democratically operated, with officers elected from among the residents. Second, an Oxford House must be financially self-supporting, with each resident paying a weekly share of the property's expenses. Third, any resident of an Oxford House who uses alcohol or drugs must be expelled immediately. An Oxford House facility generally requires a sufficient number of residents both to serve as a peer support group for fellow residents in recovery and to carry the expenses of maintaining the property. Residents do not sign individual leases.

In October, 2003, MSHC purchased a house at 68 Hooper Street in Chelsea (sometimes referred to as Chelsea Oxford House), where it intended to establish an Oxford House for ten male military veterans in recovery. The project was funded in part by $275,000 in State and Federal grants, including $200,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. After MSHC submitted an application to the city of Chelsea (city) for a building permit to renovate the property, city officials expressed concern that the Chelsea Oxford House would effectively function as a boarding house. Such a use was not permitted in the zoning district where the property was located.

MSHC requested a zoning accommodation pursuant to the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (Fair Housing Act), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 (1988). On December 9, 2003, MSHC and the city signed a memorandum of understanding whereby the city granted "a reasonable accommodation to [MSHC] as to the parking requirements of single family homes." The accommodation was "granted solely to the owner of 68 Hooper Street and does not apply to the property." MSHC agreed that the maximum number of residents in the house would be ten and that they would be veterans.2 On December 15, 2003, the city's counsel sent MSHC a letter "to confirm that with a reasonable accommodation, the property located at 68 Hooper Street . . . complies with the City of Chelsea's Zoning Regulations."

Subsequently, on December 18, 2003, MSHC was notified by the city's department of inspectional services of its obligation under G.L. c. 148, § 26H, to install an automatic sprinkler system at 68 Hooper Street. Without a sprinkler system, no more than five people would be allowed to live in the house.3 MSHC pursued an appeal of the city's order to the Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board (board). After a hearing, the board found it undisputed that the house would be "occupied by six or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting it," as § 26H required. Specifically, the board found that MSHC intended to establish a home for ten members of Oxford House.

The board found that the members of Oxford House rent the building from MSHC, which is the owner and landlord. Each week $115 is collected from each individual occupant and deposited into an Oxford House checking account. Oxford House then issues a monthly rent check to the landlord. The failure of any individual to pay the weekly rent may result, by vote of the others, in the eviction of the person who has failed to pay.

The board further found that the house at 68 Hooper Street has a first floor with two bedrooms and a second floor with five bedrooms, and that each bedroom has a locking door. The house contains three exits on the first floor and one stairway leading down from the second floor. There were several fire extinguishers, but no fire escapes. Smoking was not allowed in the house. The board determined that MSHC "indicated that it would cost approximately $25,000 to install a sprinkler system" that would satisfy the statutory requirements.

The board emphasized that it "has consistently determined that the provisions of [G.L. c. 148, § 26H, apply] to all houses that fit the criteria stated in [the] statute." It further stated that the "purpose of the automatic sprinkler requirement is to protect public safety in the event of a fire. The statute applies to all such buildings, in a neutral manner, without regard to the. . . disability status of the building occupants." It concluded that "[a]lthough the statute requires a monetary expenditure related to the installation of a fire sprinkler [s]ystem, it clearly does not prohibit the intended use of the house by Oxford House" to accomplish its mission.

The board unanimously affirmed the sprinkler system requirement. MSHC then appealed the board's decision to the Superior Court pursuant to G.L. c. 30A, § 14(7). The Superior Court summarily affirmed the decision of the board and dismissed MSHC's complaint. A judgment ensued. MSHC appealed.

Discussion. General Laws c. 148, § 26H, inserted by St.1986, c. 265, provides in relevant part:

"In any city or town which accepts the provisions of this section,[4] every lodging house or boarding house shall be protected throughout with an adequate system of automatic sprinklers in accordance with the provisions of the state building code....

"For the purposes of this section `lodging house' or `boarding house' shall mean a house where lodgings are let to six or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting it, but shall not include fraternity houses or dormitories, rest homes or group residences licensed or regulated by agencies of the commonwealth."

Under G.L. c. 30A, § 14(7), "[w]e shall uphold an agency's decision unless it is based on an error of law, unsupported by substantial evidence, unwarranted by facts found on the record as submitted, arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Massachusetts Inst. of Technology v. Department of Pub. Utils., 425 Mass. 856, 867-868, 684 N.E.2d 585 (1997).

MSHC argues that 68 Hooper Street was not a lodging or boarding house under G.L. c. 148, § 26H. MSHC does not challenge the board's finding that "the house is occupied by six or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting it." Nor does MSHC dispute that the Chelsea Oxford House is neither a fraternity, a dormitory, nor a rest home or group residence regulated by agencies of the Commonwealth. Finally, MSHC does not challenge the factfinding regarding the living arrangements at 68 Hooper Street. Rather, it argues that the Oxford House model does not fit the precise statutory definition of "lodgings [to] let" or conform to the historical meaning of lodging or boarding house; therefore, it argues, the board committed an error of law when it so classified the Chelsea Oxford House. MSHC further contends that an Oxford House is properly understood as a single-family home, and that this is how the city agreed to classify 68 Hooper Street when it entered into the memorandum of understanding granting MSHC a reasonable zoning accommodation.5 MSHC has not argued in this case that the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601, requires an accommodation for the Chelsea Oxford House under G.L. c. 148, § 26H.6

We discern no error in the board's conclusion that the living arrangements at 68 Hooper Street meet the definition of lodgings to let, particularly in the context of a statute designed to provide fire protection rather than define the legal status of a building's occupants. We have emphasized that "[l]egislation on a matter of public safety should be construed so as to best effectuate its purpose." AT&T v. Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Bd., 52 Mass.App.Ct. 11, 14, 750 N.E.2d 505 (2001), quoting from 1010 Memorial Drive Tenants Corp. v. Fire Chief of Cambridge, 424 Mass. 661, 667, 677 N.E.2d 219 (1997) (Greaney, J., dissenting). See 285 Lynn Shore Drive Condominium Trust v. Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Bd., 47 Mass. App.Ct. 437, 442, 713 N.E.2d 1014 (1999). The State building code, which is referenced in the statute, likewise instructs us to construe its terms "to secure its expressed intent, which is to insure public safety, health and welfare insofar as they are affected by . . . [concerns including] fire safety." 780 Code Mass. Regs. § 101.4 (1997).

We read the "lodgings [to] let" language and lodging house history differently from MSHC. Although MSHC finds legal significance in the statutory formulation of "lodgings [to] let," we see this language as nothing more...

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