Court of Appeals: Brookline’s first lawsuit over Hancock Village

Proposed development at Hancock Village in south Brookline has led to two lawsuits filed in state courts on behalf of the Town of Brookline. News reports so far don’t explain much about the differences between them. The first case, begun in 2013, challenges actions of a state agency. The second case, begun in 2015, challenges actions of the Brookline Zoning Board of Appeals. The first case is at the Massachusetts Court of Appeals in Boston on Monday, September 14 for a hearing on the merits.

Development plans: Between 2008 and 2011, executives at Chestnut Hill Realty (CHR) promoted plans for major development at Hancock Village, proposing up to 466 new housing units. Responses from nearby neighborhoods and Brookline government varied from concern to alarm. In November, 2011, Brookline enacted a neighborhood conservation law, making Hancock Village the first regulated district.

In 2012, CHR abandoned plans for conventional development under zoning, turning instead to Chapter 40B of the General Laws, Sections 20-23 and aiming to force through development in return for partly subsidized housing. To start such an approach, CHR needed sponsorship from a state agency. Rather than look to agencies mainly oriented to housing, CHR approached the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (MDFA). Proposals were made through a CHR subsidiary called Residences of South Brookline, LLC.

In late 2012 and early 2013, MDFA reviewed a CHR proposal to add 271 housing units in 12 new buildings. This plan was similar to other CHR plans in its overall approach. There would be a high-rise structure over a rock outcrop, previously considered unbuildable: five stories of apartments above two stories of parking. There would also be 11 low-rise structures on unbuilt land near Russett and Beverly Roads that had been reserved as “buffers” following 1940s agreements with the Town of Brookline.

MDFA sought comments from Brookline and visited the site in December, 2012. In February, 2013, MDFA drafted a response, rejecting the CHR proposal because it was “not generally appropriate for the site.” The agency cited “complete elimination of the greenbelt buffer” and “massing of the…five-story building.” Possibly tipped off to impending rejection, CHR withdrew its proposal just before the response was to be sent.

The following June, CHR proposed to MDFA a revised project with 192 new housing units in 13 new buildings. Now, over the rock outcrop, there would be four stories of apartments above two stories of parking. Although the project still eliminated the greenbelt buffer and it still included a high-rise looming over the neighborhood, built over a rock outcrop, this time MDFA approved, sending a “project eligibility letter” in October, 2013.

Reversing its previously pending rejection, MDFA offered a sentence of justification. That said the project “is generally appropriate for the site taking into account factors such as proposed use, conceptual site plan and building massing, topography, environmental resources and integration into existing development patterns.”

Court of Appeals case: Within a few weeks, the Town of Brookline filed a case against MDFA in superior court, challenging validity of the project eligibility letter. As part of this first lawsuit over Hancock Village, the Town of Brookline also asserted rights under a 1946 agreement with the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, providing enduring restrictions on Hancock Village in return for the 1946 rezoning to allow construction of apartments.

In superior court, lawyers for CHR filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that claims by the Town of Brookline were inconsistent with prior cases and with state law. The circumstances are complex, but after a brief hearing on the motions, without considering circumstances in detail, Judge Patrick F. Brady of Norfolk Superior Court allowed the motions. Brookline appealed. On Monday, September 14, the circumstances will be reviewed in detail for the first time by a full panel at the Court of Appeals.

There are two main issues in the appeal:
(1) Did Judge Brady at Norfolk Superior Court make an error in dismissing claims by the Town of Brookline that the project eligibility letter was issued without adequate justification?
(2) Did Judge Brady make an error in dismissing Brookline claims about rights under a 1946 agreement with the John Hancock Life Insurance Company that led to rezoning Hancock Village for apartments?

Issue (2) might be of more interest to the second Brookline lawsuit–against the Zoning Board of Appeals, seeking to overturn the “comprehensive permit” the zoning appeals board granted this year. However, it was also cited in the first lawsuit–against MDFA. There it was opposed by CHR lawyers, through one of the summary judgment motions Judge Brady allowed–boosting the 1946 agreement into an early appellate orbit.

Project eligibility letter: Issue (1) arguments pressed by the Town of Brookline against MDFA claim the agency failed to follow state regulations. Under 760 CMR 56.04(4)(b), those require an agency reviewing a 40B project to consider whether a site is “generally appropriate for residential development” and whether a “conceptual project design is generally appropriate for the site.”

In both instances, state regulations require a “finding, with supporting reasoning, to be set forth in reasonable detail.” The Town of Brookline asserted that the agency merely recited, like cookbook exercises, the types of 760 CMR 56 findings it would need to make but did not explain them with “supporting reasoning” of any kind, much less with “reasonable detail.” [Plaintiff's initial brief, pp. 25-27]

The Town of Brookline asserted it has no useful remedy other than a lawsuit, because a change to state regulations in 2008–apparently made for the convenience of the state Housing Appeals Committee–relabeled agency findings for project eligibility letters “conclusive” and eliminated administrative reviews. [Plaintiff's initial brief, pp. 27-29]

For issue (1) MDFA owns the heavy lifting. Its response was bulked up with dozens of pages of regulations, case memoranda and official announcements. However, the gist of the defense came down to a bald assertion that a project eligibility letter is “merely an interim step” in project approval, quoting a Massachusetts case made obsolete by 2008 changes to state regulations. [Defendant's brief from MDFA, p. 1, quoting Town of Marion v. Massachusetts Housing Finance Authority, Court of Appeals, 2007]

The brief filed for MDFA danced around Brookline’s arguments about lack of justification for a project eligibility letter. It tried to treat a summary judgment allowed in superior court, after a brief hearing during a motion session, as though it were a settled matter of law. Instead, the purpose of an appeals case is to examine reasoning applied by a lower court. [Defendant's brief from MDFA, p. 7] [Standard of review, in Plaintiff's initial brief, p. 13]

For this case, there is little reasoning from a lower court to be examined. At Norfolk Superior Court, Judge Brady merely stated that he “remain[ed] of the view that [the Marion case] applies,” without explaining why it should–over arguments from the Town of Brookline that changes in state regulations made it obsolete. [Plaintiff's initial brief, pp. 23, 27-29 and 31-33]

The brief filed for MDFA also claimed that the state provides for a “post-permit review”–apparently meaning administrative procedures after a “comprehensive permit” has been granted. However, post-permit procedures do not include comments, and they focus on “cost examination.” There is no process for an appellant to challenge whether a site is “appropriate for residential development” or whether a “conceptual project design” is “appropriate for the site.” [Massachusetts regulations 760 CMR 56.04(7), final approval]

As the Town of Brookline observed, without a court review “of project eligibility, abutters [including the Town of Brookline] are left without any meaningful recourse.” They might have a further opportunity for administrative review only if the developer were dissatisfied with Brookline zoning appeals board actions and sought relief from the state Housing Appeals Committee. However, CHR representatives stated at a public hearing that they were satisfied with outcomes from the zoning appeals board. [Plaintiff's reply brief, p. 6]

The brief filed for CHR also opposed court review of a project eligibility letter, ignoring 2008 revisions to state regulations that closed off administrative appeals and claiming project eligibility is not a “final agency action.” CHR accused the Town of Brookline of trying to subvert purposes of Chapter 40B, Sections 20-23 with “lengthy and expensive delays occasioned by court battles.” [Defendant's brief from CHR, p. 19]

In response, the Town of Brookline quoted the court opinion in the same case CHR referenced, “…interest in…affordable housing must be balanced against…protection of health and safety…and preservation of open space.” [Plaintiff's reply brief, p. 8, quoting Standerwick v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Andover, Supreme Judicial Court, 2006]

Like MDFA, CHR did not respond to the Town of Brookline’s argument that “post-permit review” leaves no process for an appellant to challenge whether a site is “appropriate for residential development” and whether a “conceptual project design” is “appropriate for the site.” [Defendant's brief from CHR, pp. 23-25] [Massachusetts regulations 760 CMR 56.04(7), final approval]

Contract zoning restrictions: Issue (2) arguments pressed by the Town of Brookline against MDFA and CHR claim the proposed project would violate terms of a 1946 agreement with the Town of Brookline by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. For this issue CHR owns the heavy lifting, since its financial interests are at stake.

At Norfolk Superior Court, MDFA and CHR claimed that any requirements from the 1946 agreement had been extinguished after 30 years by Chapter 184, Section 23 of the General Laws. However, that law governs recorded deed restrictions. Previous Massachusetts cases held that it does not limit public agreements, including ones sometimes called “contract zoning.” [Plaintiff's initial brief, pp. 3-4 and 14-19, quoting Killorin v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Andover, Court of Appeals, 2011]

The Appeals Court may regard the Killorin case as particularly relevant, since two of the three judges who heard that case have been assigned to the current Brookline case: Elspeth B. Cypher and Sydney Hanlon. The Town of Brookline asserts that it has a continuing interest in the 1946 agreement, that the proposed project would violate the agreement and that at Norfolk Superior Court Judge Brady conducted a “myopic review,” finding the Killorin decision applied only to a special zoning permit. [Plaintiff's initial brief, p. 21]

The brief filed for CHR did not respond forthrightly to arguments from the Town of Brookline. Instead, CHR asserted, “It is settled…restrictions which burden land such as those contained in the 1946 agreement can only be enforced for a period of 30 years.” However, whether or not that may be true is a main dispute in the current Appeals Court case. Wishing won’t make it so. [Defendant's brief from CHR, p. 28]

The CHR brief repeated arguments offered at Norfolk Superior Court, saying that the Killorin case “involved conditions imposed on a property by a special zoning permit.” However, the court’s summary of its decision shows it regarded special permits as examples, writing that the law at issue “did not apply to conditions or restrictions set by a government agency such as a local zoning board of appeals as part of the process of granting a special permit. [Defendant's brief from CHR, p. 28] [Killorin v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Andover, Court of Appeals, 2011, emphasis added]

CHR based its brief on selected quotations from court opinions, trying to argue that exceptions to the law limiting deed restrictions to 30 years applied only to special zoning permits or subdivision control, topics under which cases arose. A recent Appeals Court decision expressed a broader view, as the Town of Brookline argued in its response. [Plaintiff's reply brief, pp. 10-11]

The recent decision said, “The holding of Killorin does not turn on the identify of the local board or on the particular nature of the regulatory decision at issue.” It explained that “the key distinction was…the discretionary grant…under the police power”–that is, the general regulatory powers of a municipality. [Samuelson v. Planning Board of Orleans, Court of Appeals, 2014]

Analysis: In its fairly aggressive reaction to the project eligibility letter issued by MDFA, the Town of Brookline appears to be pursuing a strong remedy, seeking early intervention by a superior court rather than waiting for a “comprehensive permit” and then asking for intervention from the Land Court, as Brookline now has also done.

The main argument for early intervention by a superior court has been a claim that 2008 revisions of state regulations closed off avenues for administrative appeals. MDFA and CHR objected that no right to early intervention is provided by state law, but they did not address an equity argument that administrative remedies formerly available have been withdrawn.

In bidding to sustain a 1946 contract zoning agreement, the Town of Brookline is also treading on unusual territory. So far, no one has cited another such agreement by a Massachusetts town that was brought to a town meeting rather than negotiated through a planning board or zoning appeals board. The extensions from circumstances of prior cases may seem obvious, but they are hardly foregone conclusions.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 12, 2015


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

Plaintiff’s initial brief, Case 2014-P-1817, Massachusetts Court of Appeals, January 12, 2015 (missing the preamble and table indexes)

Defendant’s brief from MDFA, Case 2014-P-1817, Massachusetts Court of Appeals, February 11, 2015 (11 MB, too large for the Brookline Beacon site, obtainable at Brookline Office of Town Counsel)

Defendant’s brief from CHR, Case 2014-P-1817, Massachusetts Court of Appeals, February 11, 2015 (10 MB, too large for the Brookline Beacon site, obtainable at Brookline Office of Town Counsel)

Plaintiff’s reply brief, Case 2014-P-1817, Massachusetts Court of Appeals, March 13, 2015 (4 MB)

Project eligibility letter, issued to Residences of South Brookline c/o Chestnut Hill Realty, Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, October 8, 2013

Draft denial of project eligibility, addressed to Residences of South Brookline c/o Chestnut Hill Realty, Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, February 13, 2013 (obtained by Town of Brookline via discovery)

Comprehensive permits [under Chapter 40B], Massachusetts regulations 760 CMR 56, Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, 2015 (current version)

Martha Samuelson and another v. Planning Board of Orleans and others, 86 Mass. App. Ct. 901, July 2, 2014

Eric H. Killorin and others v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Andover and another, 80 Mass.App.Ct. 665, October 14, 2011

Town of Marion v. Massachusetts Housing Finance Authority, 68 Mass. App. Ct. 208, February 12, 2007

Eileen Standerwick and others v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Andover and another, 447 Mass. 20, June 16, 2006

Land Court: Dueling boards, Selectmen v. Zoning Appeals, Brookline Beacon, September 5, 2015

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

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

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