On June 17, 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court decided an interesting zoning case concerning whether the holder of a beach access easement has standing to challenge a zoning determination affecting the beach parcel.  The case is Picard v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Westminster.

As all followers of Massachusetts zoning know, the standing of a plaintiff to challenge a zoning decision is often a dispositive and hotly disputed issue.  This is in large part because it is typically difficult to glean any clear guidance from the cases, which are highly fact intensive.  Indeed, in this case the Appeals Court found standing, whereas the trial court and the SJC did not.

In Picard, the SJC avoided some of the mind numbing standing analyses that we have seen and instead focused on the fact that the plaintiff’s complaint was unrelated to the zoning at hand.

Picard did not claim that constructing a residence on the locus would be deleterious in any respect related to typical zoning concerns, for example, density, traffic, parking availability, or noise….  Nor did he claim standing based on any injury related to the merits of his zoning challenge, that is, the locus’s status as a grandfathered nonconforming lot or its insufficient area or frontage. Rather, Picard claimed that the proposed construction would interfere with his use of the locus for access to the pond [pursuant to his easement and lead to conflict between the easement holders and the landowner].

Picard was an abutter to the beach property who was entitled to a presumption of standing.  Nevertheless, the Court held that the injuries that Picard was asserting to his “private easement rights are not within the scope of concern of the Zoning Act.”

The SJC also pointed out that the landowner had made clear that, rather than interfering with beach access, his proposed construction would improve that access.  Picard’s testimony to the contrary consisted solely of his opinion, “unsupported by any specific construction plans or other evidence.”  His mere opinion would not have been enough to support standing, even had Picard’s alleged injury been within the scope of concern of the Zoning Act.

Although standing to challenge zoning decisions will continue to be a messy area of the law, Picard reinforces some of the straightforward rules that must be considered.  In order to have standing parties challenging a zoning decision must assert that they will suffer an injury that falls within the interests that zoning seeks to protect.  Plaintiffs also must establish that they are likely to be harmed with some hard evidence and not merely rely on conjecture or opinion.