The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today issued a decision in Regis College v. Town of Weston (pdf), a case that (someday) will add to the existing body of Massachusetts law under the so-called Dover Amendment – the provision in the state’s Zoning Act that exempts qualifying educationalGranny Grad and religious uses from most local zoning regulations.

In 2005, Regis College, located in Weston, Massachusetts, proposed “Regis East,” an eight-building, 766,000 square-foot residential facility for senior citizens, to be built on a parcel of wooded land across the street from its main campus.  In addition to apartment units and associated dining, fitness and healthcare facilities, Regis East would include classrooms, and residents would be required to enroll in at least two courses per semester.  This requirement could be met by taking courses in Regis’s existing degree-granting programs, in its current continuing education program, or in “self-directed study” approved by the resident’s “academic advisor” as well as the “Dean of the East Campus.”  Regis contends that Regis East is primarily an educational facility, and therefore is exempt from Weston’s otherwise applicable zoning regulations.

Weston’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied Regis’s request for relief from local zoning, expressing the view that the educational aspects of the project were mere “window dressing” for what was in truth a luxury housing development.  Regis appealed to the Land Court.  In a summary judgment ruling, the Land Court affirmed the zoning board’s decision, agreeing with the board that Regis East appeared to be more of a money-making housing development than an educational institution, and that the project’s educational features were too vaguely described.  Regis filed a further appeal, and the SJC took the case on direct appellate review.

In its decision, the SJC first reviewed some of its own key precedents in considerable detail.  Doing so led the court to confirm that, while Dover Amendment protection isn’t limited to “traditional or conventional educational regimes,” to qualify for the exemption a project proponent must show two things: (1) a “bona fide goal” that can reasonably be described as “educationally significant,” and (2) that this educationally significant goal is the “primary or dominant” purpose of the project.  On both of these elements, the SJC concluded that Regis’s evidence – while vague – was sufficient to raise disputed issues of material fact that could not properly be resolved on summary judgment.  As a result, the SJC remanded the case to the Land Court for further proceedings – most likely a trial.

We’ll continue to track this important case and provide an update when the Land Court issues its next decision.