The Supreme Judicial Court today quashed plans for a 334-unit apartment complex in an office park off Nahanton Road in Newton, saying the state's anti-snob-zoning law doesn't apply to the parcel and so the city was within its rights to deny approval for the project - in which 85 apartments would have been rented to people making less than the typical Newton resident.
The state's highest court said this is because the state law only applies to "permits and approvals" - for such things as building height and density, while the issue with the land on Wells Avenue had to do with deed restrictions.
In the 1960s, Sylvania Electric Products bought a 180-acre parcel off Wells Avenue for a manufacturing plant. The city changed the zoning to allow the plant after Sylvania agreed to deed 30 acres to the city for a park and to accept certain restrictions on the land it kept, including limiting the land to "light manufacturing" and to keeping some of the land as open space.
Over the years, the city board of aldermen, acting as the zoning board, approved a variety of non-manufacturing uses for the Sylvania building - which the company never actually used for manufacturing - including a bouncy house.
A developer bought 6.4 acres of the old Sylvania land and in 2014, asked aldermen to change the zoning to allow construction of the apartments and to let it build in part of the open-space land. The developers filed under the anti-snob-zoning law, known as Chapter 40B, which applies to communities with less than 10% of their housing stock being considered low or moderate income.
In its ruling today, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with both the city and the state Housing Appeals Committee that the law didn't apply in this case because the law doesn't supersede property rights, in the form of deed restrictions. Referring to an earlier case involving a town, the court wrote:
Allowing the board to require the town to grant an easement over municipally-owned property to a private developer would be to take away a real property right from the town, an action fundamentally different action from the types of "permits or approvals" that G. L. c. 40B authorizes a local zoning board to undertake.
But what about decisions to allow non-manufacturing uses, such as a bouncy house, on the land?
It is clear, however, that the aldermen's allowance of prior amendments to the restrictive covenants were not the functional equivalent of permits or approvals; the aldermen were not sitting as a local permitting authority when allowing the amendments pursuant to G. L. c. 40, § 3, and the amendments, which affected a real property interest held by the city, were not the same types of permissions as regulations concerning "building construction and design, siting, zoning, health, safety, [or] environment."