Land Court: Dueling boards, Selectmen v. Zoning Appeals

At the Massachusetts Land Court, the Brookline Board of Selectmen faced a motion to remove Town Counsel Joslin Murphy and members of her staff as their representatives in a lawsuit they had filed against members of Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals. It’s a strange case, essentially one town board suing another.

After hearing arguments starting at 10:30 am Thursday, September 3, Judge Gordon Piper indicated he would allow the motion unless the Town of Brookline provides its zoning appeals board legal representation in the case before the end of September.

Hancock Village controversy: Chestnut Hill Realty of West Roxbury, through subsidiaries, originally proposed building 466 new apartments on parts of Hancock Village in south Brookline. After false starts, they reduced the scope of the project and proposed using powers under Chapter 40B of the General Laws, Sections 20-23, to override Brookline zoning in return for building partly subsidized housing.

On February 4, 2015, after more than a year of hearings, Brookline’s zoning appeals board voted unanimously to grant a so-called “comprehensive permit” to build 161 apartments plus 292 parking spaces. There would be a high-rise structure over a rock outcrop, previously considered unbuildable, plus low-rise structures on unbuilt land that had been reserved as “buffers” following 1940s agreements with the Town of Brookline.

In a closed session at a meeting March 3, as confirmed by participants, the Brookline Board of Selectmen voted to sue the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals. A complaint was filed in the Massachusetts Land Court on March 11, seeking to annul and revoke the permit: Town of Brookline and others v. Jesse Geller, Member of the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals, and others. That became Land Court case 2015-MISC-000072.

The Town of Brookline stands directly affected by the permit partly because it owns two abutting properties: Baker School land and D. Blakeley Hoar conservation land. Other plaintiffs in the case are residents who own abutting private property. Main defendants are the zoning appeals board members who voted to grant the permit: Jesse Geller, Christopher Hussey and Jonathan Book–named in their roles as town officials. Other defendants are the Chestnut Hill Realty subsidiary awarded the permit: Residences of South Brookline, LLC.

Legal representation: The Board of Selectmen opposed the Hancock Village project throughout 2014 and, so far, 2015. However, that board assisted the zoning appeals board with services of outside counsel, who attended hearing sessions and offered advice. The Board of Selectmen approved several requests to the Advisory Committee for reserve fund transfers to pay for outside counsel. Funds went through both the Legal Services department and the Planning and Community Development department.

According to online town records, during fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015 Brookline paid two firms who advised the zoning appeals board a total of $295,121 for services: Krokidas and Bluestein, of Boston, and Edith M. Netter and Associates, of Waltham. The lawyers who attended the appeals board sessions were Samuel Nagler and Kathryn Murphy from the Boston firm and Edith Netter from the Waltham firm. All testimony and advice was in public sessions recorded by Brookline Interactive Group.

At Land Court this week, Judge Piper appeared familiar with the background of the Brookline case. Before arguments, he expressed concern that no legal appearances had been filed for the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals members and that no counsel attended the hearing to represent their interests.

According to communications, Judge Piper said, legal appearances were supposed to have been filed in June. Brookline Town Counsel Joslin Murphy responded that there was “no funding in place.” Judge Piper asked, “Was it requested?” Ms. Murphy said, “Selectmen were asked for support…they did not authorize any.”

Kevin O’Flaherty, representing Chestnut Hill Realty interests, maintained that Ms. Murphy and her staff had “unwaivable conflict,” responsible to represent two boards with opposing outlooks. The judge asked where there had been practical problems. Mr. O’Flaherty contended there might be problems such as obtaining documents, noting there was no counsel to contact for the zoning appeals board members.

Ms. Murphy countered that “the town has responded to discovery requests.” She noted that all sessions and records of the zoning appeals board were public and that Brookline’s Department of Planning and Community Development had provided staff support to retrieve records. She said that “the chairman of the ZBA [Zoning Board of Appeals] did correspond with the court.”

Zoning agreement: Jason Talerman, representing other plaintiffs in the case, opposed removing Ms. Murphy and her staff from the Land Court case and noted a related case now pending in the Court of Appeals. A key issue in the Appeals Court case has been a 1946 zoning agreement between the Town of Brookline and the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, specifying enduring restrictions on Hancock Village development.

Mr. Talerman had previously raised the issue in a memorandum sent on December 31, 2014, to the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals. As in that memorandum, under the 1946 agreement, he told Judge Piper, “The project as proposed would be impossible.” In its comprehensive permit, however, the zoning appeals board took no notice of the 1946 agreement.

Threat: After more than an hour of argument, Judge Piper seemed unmoved by the particulars and returned to his initial concern over lack of legal representation for Brookline’s zoning appeals board members, saying he found it “deeply troubling.” Board members, he said, were left “entirely speechless, unable to be heard.” Since the members are being sued in their official capacities, they are apparently ineligible to present arguments pro se as plaintiff or defendant individuals might.

According to Judge Piper, “The developer,” apparently meaning the subsidiary of Chestnut Hill Realty, “is limited in its ability to gain access to the minds of the [appeals] board…I will not rule at the moment, [but]…if there is continued inability to hear from the board…I will be strongly inclined to allow the motion.” If that threat were carried out, however, it would instead leave both the main plaintiff and the main defendants in the case unrepresented.

As acknowledged to the Beacon by Ms. Murphy, Brookline has several sources of funds, including her office’s budget for outside legal services, the contingency fund and “in the worst case” a request to the Advisory Committee for a transfer from the reserve fund. Ms. Murphy did not succeed with her most recent reserve fund request.

Mysteries: Partly owing to statements in open court from Ms. Murphy, mysteries remain. There is no docket entry in the case for a communication from Jesse Geller, who chairs the zoning appeals board. If he is ineligible to represent himself in the case yet did “communicate with the court,” then how, when and what did he communicate?

Records should say whom the Board of Selectmen asked for advice about a request to provide funds for outside counsel to represent members of the zoning appeals board in the Land Court case, also what advice was offered and what members of the Board of Selectmen had to say. How and why did members of the Board of Selectmen “not authorize any” funds to represent members of another town board with whom they disagreed on a key issue?

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 5, 2015


Town of Brookline and others v. Jesse Geller, Member of the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals, and others, Massachusetts Land Court case 2015-MISC-000072, filed March 11, 2015 (click button to search public records, select Land Court Department and Case Number tab, enter case number “15 MISC 000072″ and click Search button, click any Case Number item for “15 MISC 000072″)

Complaint, Town of Brookline and others v. Jesse Geller, Member of the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals, and others, Massachusetts Land Court, March 11, 2015

Town of Brookline, MA, FY2015 accounts, Vendor payments for KROKIDAS and BLUESTEIN LLP, August, 2015

Town of Brookline, MA, FY2015 accounts, Vendor payments for EDITH M NETTER and ASSOCIATES PC, August, 2015

Comprehensive permit for The Residences of South Brookline, LLC, on the site of Hancock Village, Zoning Board of Appeals, Town of Brookline, MA, February 20, 2015 (4 MB)

Town of Brookline and others v. Mass. Development Finance Agency and others, Massachusetts Court of Appeals case 2014-P-1817, filed November 14, 2014

Jason Talerman to Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals, Re: Chestnut Hill Realty, Chapter 40B application, Brookline Department of Planning and Community Development, December 31, 2014

Irene Scharf and Jason Talerman, Testimony at Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals, February 24, 2014, see pp. 13 and 45-48

Advisory Committee: probing a disconnect, Brookline Beacon, July 29, 2015

Board of Selectmen: new members and leadership, Brookline Beacon, May 13, 2015

Board of Selectmen: Hancock Village, budget reviews, Brookline Beacon, March 4, 2015

Craig Bolon, Hancock Village: development pressures, Brookline Beacon, February 22, 2015

Board of Selectmen: Hancock Village, financial plan, Brookline Beacon, February 21, 2015

Zoning Board of Appeals: Hancock Village 40B conditions, Brookline Beacon, January 6, 2015

Zoning Board of Appeals: Hancock Village 40B, getting to Yes, Brookline Beacon, November 4, 2014

Board of Selectmen: opposing Hancock Village 40B, defending METCO, Brookline Beacon, September 17, 2014

Zoning Board of Appeals: architecture for Hancock Village Chapter 40B, Brookline Beacon, September 9, 2014

Judith Leichtner, Comments to Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals on proposed chapter 40B development at Hancock Village, September 8, 2014

Zoning Board of Appeals: Chapter 40B project at Hancock Village, Brookline Beacon, June 20, 2014

Brock Parker, Developer gets green light to pursue a 40B project in Brookline, Boston Globe, October 24, 2013

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