The Massachusetts Subdivision Control Law, M.G.L. c. 41, §§ 81K – 81GG, defines “subdivision” as “the division of a tract of land into two or more lots . . .” (emphasis added). Given this definition, it has long been thought that there is no such thing as a one-lot subdivision. But in a recent decision, Land Court Judge Gordon H. Piper found that the plaintiff landowner (represented by my colleague Don Pinto and I) was entitled to approval of a one-lot subdivision under an obscure provision of the Subdivision Control Law, Section 81Y.
The last sentence of the third paragraph of Section 81Y states:
Any person owning a lot in a subdivision, approval of which was required by the subdivision control law but not obtained, who did not make the subdivision and acquired title without notice or knowledge of the lack of such approval, may submit a plan of said lot and of the ways giving access thereto to the planning board, and such plan shall be acted upon in the same manner and with the same effect, so far as affects said lot and the rights of access appurtenant thereto, as a plan of a subdivision.
As far as we know, this provision of Section 81Y has never been addressed by a Massachusetts court – until now. In an unpublished decision issued from the bench, Judge Piper confirmed that Section 81Y provides a mechanism by which an innocent purchaser of a landlocked parcel can obtain approval of a plan showing what is, in essence, a one-lot subdivision. Such plans must be reviewed by the planning board even though they don’t show a “subdivision” as defined in the Subdivision Control Law.
A brief review of the facts is in order. In January, 2003, the plaintiff, Charles Bosworth, purchased a 2.1-acre landlocked parcel off of Hillside Street in Milton, Massachusetts (the “Locus”). The Locus, which was first established as a separate lot by a 1956 deed, has no street frontage. However, it has the benefit of a 50-foot wide easement to Hillside Street over a neighboring property. In February, 2003, Bosworth filed a preliminary subdivision plan with the Milton Planning Board. The plan showed a new road running from Hillside Street to the Locus. This road – if approved – would provide the frontage required under the local zoning bylaw. The Planning Board voted to “dismiss” the plan on the ground that it showed only one buildable lot and, therefore, was not a subdivision.
In September, 2006, Bosworth filed a definitive subdivision plan based on his preliminary plan. Bosworth argued that, although his definitive plan showed only one buildable lot, it should be approved under the above-quoted language of Section 81Y. The Planning Board, insisting that it could not approve a one-lot subdivision, refused to approve the plan, and Bosworth appealed to the Land Court.
After two rounds of summary judgment, the remaining issues in the case – including the Section 81Y issue – went to trial. At the conclusion of the evidence, Judge Piper reviewed the relevant language of Section 81Y and found that Bosworth had satisfied all of the statutory prerequisites: (1) when it was created in 1956, the Locus was carved off from a larger parcel, and therefore was part of a subdivision; (2) because Milton had adopted the Subdivision Control Law in 1953, the Planning Board, in 1956, was required to approve this initial subdivision; and (3) Bosworth purchased the Locus without knowledge of the lack of this required approval. As a result, Bosworth had the right to submit a one-lot subdivision plan showing access to the Locus from Hillside Street, and the Planning Board was required to review the plan in the same manner as if it showed a “real” (i.e. two or more lots) subdivision – and approve the plan if it otherwise complied with the Planning Board’s subdivision rules and regulations (it did).
This quirky case shows that in land use law – as in other endeavors – it’s never too late to learn something new, even if that something new is a law that’s almost 60 years old.