Gosnold is the Massachusetts town that comprises Cuttyhunk and the other Elizabeth Islands, which stretch southwest from Woods Hole (Falmouth), between Buzzard’s Bay and Vineyard Sound. Along with Martha’s Vineyard, Gosnold is in Dukes County. Interestingly, except for Cuttyhunk and Penikese, the Elizabeth Islands are privately owned by the Forbes family.
In its recent decision in Ridgeley Management Corp. v. Planning Board of Gosnold, the Appeals Court affirmed a lower court ruling that the Gosnold Planning Board had no authority to act on a definitive subdivision plan because the town had not previously adopted subdivision rules and regulations. The court ruled that under the plain language of M.G.L. c. 41, § 81N, the subdivision control law is not effective in a town until the town establishes a planning board andadopts rules and regulations. As a result, by delaying its adoption of rules and regulations, Gosnold was able to enact more stringent zoning and board of health requirements that were immune from the zoning freeze provisions of M.G.L. c. 40A, § 6 and M.G.L. c. 111, § 127P.
In May, 2000, Gosnold voted to authorize its Board of Selectmen to act as a planning board. But the Planning Board didn’t enact subdivision rules and regulations until November, 2009. In the meantime, on May 12, 2008, the plaintiff (Ridgeley) submitted a preliminary subdivision plan. A week later, Gosnold’s annual town meeting voted to establish new lot size and frontage requirements in the town’s zoning by-law. In December, 2008, Ridgeley submitted a definitive subdivision plan. The Planning Board rejected the plan for lack of jurisdiction due to the absence of subdivision rules and regulations.
On appeal, Ridgeley argued that, on equitable grounds, its subdivision plan was entitled to consideration with the benefit of the statutory freezes. Ridgeley argued that the Planning Board deliberately deferred its adoption of rules and regulations as part of a “wait-and-see” strategy, allowing it to delay or deny any subdivision it didn’t like. While the Appeals Court was somewhat sympathetic to Ridgeley’s position, in the end, the court relied on the “deeply rooted” principle that past practices will not estop a governmental body in the performance of its public health, safety and welfare duties.