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It's a rough life: Court rules Sherborn couple is just going to have to live with a new neighbor across the street and more than half a football field away from their house

The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the owners of a house on a 13-acre parcel on Farm Pond in Sherborn have no legal reasons to stop the owners of a 3-acre parcel across the street from putting up a single-family house.

At issue was the house that Merriann Panarella and David Erichsen want to build on Lake Road. The town zoning board had voted to let them go ahead, because it met most town requirements - including 250 feet of frontage on Lake Street - except the parcel was slightly narrower than called for in the middle, where the home would go. The new house would be some 90 feet from the road - zoning only requires 60 - and a total of 180 feet away from Robert and Alison Murchison's digs on the other side of Lake Road.

The Murchisons promptly sued, arguing the new house would make the neighborhood - with its three-acre minimum zoning - too dense, would cause an increase in traffic on the officially designated "scenic road" and might even flood their property.

In its ruling, the state's highest court agreed that the Murchisons were potentially "persons aggrieved" who could sue under state zoning laws. But the decision was all downhill from there for the Murchisons, because the law requires aggrieved parties to have something specific to be legally aggrieved about, and the Murchisons did not, the court ruled.

For starters, the court said aggrievement comes with issues that would affect the complaining party directly, rather than the neighborhood or town as a whole. Traffic on Lake Street and density and overcrowding are issues that affect the entire neighborhood, not just the couple. Still, the court analyzed the Murchisons' complaints and found them wanting.

One house would not appreciably increase traffic on the road, the court said.

The justices added that the density argument didn't hold water, either. In a leafy suburb like Sherborn, of course, density doesn't mean whether neighbors would be crammed together like on some common Tokyo subway car, but whether anybody's views would be affected. Aside from the fact that the Murchisons built their house to look out over Farm Pond, on the other side of their property from the street, the new house would not detract from their view of trees in the other direction, the court said, in part because the Murchisons' own property along the road is lined with trees, in part because the lot across the street has a similar row of trees along the street.

The court similarly dismissed their argument that the new house would decrease their property values, agreeing with a real-estate broker that, if anything, the house would help increase neighborhood values because a house would be worth more than the mostly vacant lot there now.

Also tossed: An argument that the new house would lead to increased runoff - the court said the Murchison's engineer improperly contrasted a fully wooded site with a lot with a house on it in making that determination, while the other couple's engineer properly contrasted its actual condition as a partially cleared lot. And besides, the couple planned to put in measures to reduce any runoff.

Referring to a decision by a Land Court judge to dismiss the suit - which the Murchisons appealed - the court concluded:

In short, the judge found that the plaintiffs' concerns were, in various aspects, speculative, unsupported by evidence, de minimis, or not credible. She concluded that the plaintiffs' presumptive standing as abutters had been rebutted, and that they had not marshalled evidence to demonstrate standing. We agree.

Note: The court actually decided to dismiss the suit in March, but did not file its reasons until today.

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Comments

I agree with most of this decision.

But why shouldn't negative impacts to the neighborhood be grounds for a suit? If a real estate project is so bad it makes a whole neighborhood worse, and also makes things worse for a neighbor, the neighbor can't do anything about it?

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Voting closed 21

If you're going to sue on your own behalf, you have to show "particularized" damage.

There is a way to pursue a neighborhood or even townwide claim, but you need to get at least nine other people to agree to sign up for a potentially lengthy (and, of course, expensive) "10-citizen" lawsuit. That's how people in the North End got the federal courts to toss the BRA/BPDA's insistence on putting a restaurant at the end of Long Wharf (it was particularly lengthy and expensive because the BRA just wouldn't give up and kept appealing every single decision against it).

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The Manhattanization of Sherborn has started! Nothing can stop "those" people from living in highrises now!

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Those in glass houses... with private driveways... careful, your suburban privilege is showing.

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I take it that you have never been to West Roxbury - a part of Boston that is more suburban than where I live?

This happens everywhere and the arguments about "traffic", "density" and "manhattanization" are similarly daft - like the people who don't even live in my neighborhood having conniptions because a property next to a sprawling concrete bunker of a high school and across the street from a gas station wants to build 11 apartment units. ELEVEN UNITS!!!!! They claim this will somehow cause more traffic issues than the high school's daily clusterpalooza or car commuters trying to get to I-93 backing up for two miles every morning.

What standing do they have? Some claim that the 1930's bungalow that got torn down was a unique historic property. You can't make this up.

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Especially since my writing is poor, but your first sentence in the second paragraph is lacking in the dependent clause at the end.

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Of course, you realize this means you're now on the UHub copy desk!

I originally wrote the second paragraph as one long sentence, basically. But that looked bad, so I split it up, and well, er, um.

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will represent you pro bono in any future dependent clause dispute.

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https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/509

P.S. You are doing the Lord's work Adam. Thank you.

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It’s Lake Street, there is no Lake Road in Sherborn AFAIK.

I ride a bike along there sometimes.

When you make a lot (aka shit-ton) of money at Fidelity you have extra to toss at lawyers and make your neighbors think you’re an asshole, (maybe a tax write-off, too) but you don’t have to care because you’ll never ever see them unless you use binoculars. If he wants to preserve his views, he should spend the money and get a proper estate, maybe in The Hamptons. Sherborn. Pfffft!
Damn. I LOVE the open space in Sherborn, but I swear this guy is just asking for the Turkey Liberation Front and Coyote Council to squat on his real estate holdings.

Good thing TLF can’t bring themselves to toss their eggs at the house in late May/early June.
Once that stuff dries in the sun it’s a real PITA to remove.

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Alternate headline: "Filthy rich couple doesn't want merely rich neighbors, wastes court's time"

Another question is, in a state with a chronic housing crisis, why such high minimum lot sizes are tolerated and legal.

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Not across the street from my front yard!

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Professional pain in the arse.

Would not want to live across the street from them even with this decision.

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seems like he now 1-1 in the 'who's the asshole contest' standings to date.

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Everyone is different, but you figure people’s human nature would prefer to have next door neighbors that you actually know and can talk to.....instead of hidden in the woods.

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They wanted to be isolated and in the woods while still being close to Boston.

I don't have any sympathy for them but in their mind they only want what they think paid for.

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If they didn't want neighbors across the street they should have bought the as-of-right buildable lot across the street.

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In their mind they paid for the privilege of not see any other buildings. That's not actually the case as the courts have shown. But they are angry because they assumed they'd have absolute privacy when the bought the house, probably figuring the zoning codes would have made it unlikely for someone to build in the adjacent lot.

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I'm going to assume they understand the concepts of real estate ownership well enough to understand what SG and I know. I have a hard time believing that, in their mind, they could control that lot without owning it. Then again nothing they did makes any sense. Looks like they don't have as much money as they like to pretend.

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It's not clear from the story that they will be able to see the new house in any case. The decision says there's a row of trees across the front of their property, and another row of trees across the street. My guess is they just hate the idea of anyone being that close to them, whether they can actually detect their presence or not.

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Wait, but isn’t the point that the lot isn’t legally buildable? And they just didn’t have standing to make the court enforce that?

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They could have, and rich people often do that when they want land to stay undeveloped (or so I am told.) It would be fun to find out the difference in what they paid for attys fees and expert witnesses vs actually buying the lot beforehand.

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He was afraid they would rent the property to Kirk Minihane.

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Hey Norm, get a load of this! Mr. Murchison just wanted to be treated differently than the law would indicate because he thinks he is better than other people. I personally think Bob should be able to step on everyone he wants to because he is a privileged white liberal whose opinions are the only correct ones and the only ones that should be allowed to be spoken out loud... Viva Kirk Minihane!

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Right. I'm sure these jerkoffs were going to sell their house tomorrow and move directly into the Pine Street Inn.

These are the kinds of pigs I can do without in a polite society.

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2 attorneys that started their career at Hale and Dorr nka WilmerHale ended up as life partners out in Sherborn? Not surprised. Connections money and power.

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