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.