Permitting/Zoning

Beacon Hill MAIt’s a classic Boston neighborhood turf battle. Mayor Martin Walsh, the Irishman from Savin Hill vs. the Brahmins of Beacon Hill. The nature of the dispute:  sidewalk ramps in Beacon Hill for the disabled.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is fed up with some of Beacon Hill residents’ long time opposition to the installation of disability sidewalk ramps and other accommodations for the disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Always up for a fight to preserve the historical character of “the Hill,” the Beacon Hill Civic Association and its members are upset because they feel that Mayor Walsh is not willing to consider what they feel is more historically appropriate materials and designs for Beacon Hill sidewalks and streets. They also accuse Mayor Walsh of exacting political revenge for not getting any votes in the recent mayoral election — he was decimated in Beacon Hill voting by a 70% margin over challenger, Harvard trained John Connolly. Hogwash, says the Mayor. Caught in the middle of this unfortunate fight are disabled folks who have a hard time navigating Beacon Hill’s narrow, winding, cobblestoned thoroughfares.

20140717_142510-1200x675The brouhaha has now moved to Suffolk Superior Court where the BHCA has filed an interesting lawsuit against the City, claiming that the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission has the final legal say in what type of materials and design are used for the accessibility project. Some interesting legal issues will be decided in this case, the most important of which would be whether the federal ADA trumps local and state regulations on historical design where a district or building is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places.

The streets of Beacon Hill are lined with red brick sidewalks, giving it a warm, welcoming feel. The proposed disabled ramps are grey concrete, topped with bright red panel inserts. Yes, these ramps didn’t exist during the times of John Hancock, but Charles Street was also lined with horse dung for all to step on. Let’s hope Mayor Walsh and Beacon Hill residents can put the emotion and rhetoric aside to do what’s right for the disabled. After all, they have every right to enjoy Charles Street, with or without horse dung. 

 

 

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airbnbLaw Catching Up With Popular Airbnb Room Rental Website

With the promise of relatively easy money, Airbnb (Air Bed & Breakfast) is making innkeepers of many Greater Boston homeowners and even renters who are taking advantage of the popular website’s rental listing service. For those who don’t know already, Airbnb is a website where you can rent out one or more rooms in your home, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee. But with some homeowners earning upwards of $20,000/year on rental income, Airbnb raises a multitude of thorny legal issues in Massachusetts, including whether an innkeeper or rooming house license is required and whether guests qualify as tenants. Last year, a group of Brookline residents dropped a dime on a local homeowner who rented out rooms to foreign exchange students via Airbnb. According to Brookline Building Commissioner Dan Bennett, an owner may rent up to two rooms to two lodgers as of right, as long as there are no separate cooking facilities. If an owner wants to have another lodger, they would require relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, Airbnb’s website currently lists nearly 3,500 properties for rent in the Boston area — a 63% increase since July 2013. Some of the lodging arrangements offered cost less than $50 per night and involve little more than a bed, a key, and zero conversation. Others offer entire homes, bed-and-breakfast-intensity chitchat, and prices that can top $800 per night. Aspiring innkeepers are everywhere, from Dorchester to Revere, Boston to Somerville, advertising “treetop views,” “steps to the T,” “cozy penthouses,” even “lovely puppies.”

But with success has come negative attention from cities and towns that want to tax the lodging arrangements as they do hotels, from landlords with leases that prohibiting sublets, and from neighbors who don’t want strangers traipsing through buildings. There are also some horror stories popping up with Airbnb guests turning into squatters and refusing to leave. In New York City, the Attorney General is waging a publicized legal fight to get Airbnb host names and recover unpaid hotel taxes. 

Licensing and Registration Requirements

From a legal perspective, there is no doubt that Massachusetts municipalities will eventually be considering whether Airbnb qualifies as a rooming or lodging house, bed and breakfast or hotel for purposes of both regulation and taxation. Hey, you think cities will pass up a golden opportunity to increase tax revenue? No way.

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services recently opined in a memo that lodging of this type is subject to local licensure as a bed and breakfast. For now, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department has issued a temporary policy not to issue citations to homeowners while an internal group works on recommendations. A city policy is expected this fall, and as yet, no per-bed fee rate has been set.

The Licensing Board for the City of Boston requires a lodging house license if lodgings are rented to four or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting the lodging. This license is an annual requirement and a lodging house is further required to keep, in permanent form, a register of the true name and residence of occupants for a period of one year. Lodging house license may require upgrades with smoke detectors and fire prevention systems which may be cost prohibitive for any Airbnb host.

The Boston Inspectional Services Department requires that a property be registered if it is to be occupied without the owner of the property present. This registration is done on an annual basis and inspection of the property is required on a five (5) year cycle by the Inspectional Services Department. This regulation applies to “a non-owner occupied room or group of related rooms within a dwelling used or intended for use by one family or household for living, sleeping, cooking and eating.” More information is available here.

In the suburbs, Airbnb may also run afoul of zoning by-laws which regulate whether a home is a single family or multi-family dwelling.

Taxes. The City of Boston excise and convention center taxes (together known as room occupancy taxes) may apply to an Airbnb listing. Refer to the Massachusetts Room Occupancy Tax Guide for more details. In addition, the Massachusetts excise tax may also apply. Refer to Section 64G(3) of the State Tax Code.

Guests Considered Legal Tenants?

Airbnb offers rentals for a daily, weekly or monthly charge. Whether a guest would be considered a legal tenant entitled to the vast protections under Mass. law depends primarily on the length of the tenancy. Under state law, if the premises is deemed a rooming house or lodging house, a rental for three consecutive months constitutes a tenancy at will which can only be terminated with a rental period notice of at least 30 days. Occupancy of a dwelling unit within a rooming house or lodging house for more than 30 consecutive days and less than three consecutive months may be terminated only by seven (7) days notice in writing by the operator of the rooming house or lodging house to the occupant. A daily rental is a grey area and would likely be considered a mere license. However, in all instances, the host must use court eviction proceedings to evict the guest, and cannot resort to self-help such as changing the locks, lest they be subject to liability.

Apartments

If you have the chutzpah of renting out a room in your leased apartment via Airbnb, the rental will likely violate your lease’s provision against sub-leasing and your landlord will not be happy. Most standard form apartment leases provide that any sub-lease must have the written consent of the landlord so the landlord can control who occupies the unit. Most landlords I know will not approve of an Airbnb rental situation, unless they are getting income and are assured of the security and safety of the situation. Renting out your apartment through Airbnb can violate your lease and subject you to a quick exist via eviction. From one legal question and answer website, tenants are already facing eviction for using Airbnb.

Condominiums

If you are renting out a room in your condo, Airbnb rentals may also conflict with condominium rules and regulations. I highly doubt your condominium association and fellow unit owners would be happy if a unit were turned into a revolving door of bed and breakfast guests. Most condominium documents provide for rules governing the type and length of rentals of units. Unit owners who violate these rules can be subject to fines, penalties and court action.

Mortgage and Homeowner Insurance Policy Ramifications

Most conventional single family and condominium Fannie Mae compliant mortgages contain a provision where the owner agrees that the mortgaged property will remain the borrower’s principal place of residence and not an investment property. Investment property mortgage typically carry a higher interest rate and are sold in a different category in the secondary mortgage market. Homeowners who make a practice of using Airbnb may unknowingly be violating their mortgage agreements by converting the property into in essence a rental property. The same holds true for a standard homeowner’s insurance policy. Turning your home into a bed and breakfast certainly raises a host of new risks for both the homeowner and the insurance company underwriting those risks. If there is an unfortunate accident involving an Airbnb guest, watch out because the insurance company could deny the claim due to converting the character of the insured property into a rental property.

What’s Next?

Airbnb is certainly a game-changing technology in the rental space. As is common with any new distruptive technology the law is just catching up. But the law will catch up and Airbnb hosts and guest must pay attention and comply with whatever regulations and law that are passed. Check back here for more developments as I will be monitoring the situation.

 

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pic_INDEX58 Legislators Pushing Comprehensive Zoning Reform Bill

“Inclusionary Zoning” Provision May Expand Controversial 40B Law

With “Smart Growth” advocates strongly behind them, a cadre of Beacon Hill lawmakers are pushing a controversial bill that for the first time in 37 years would comprehensively overhaul state law governing municipal zoning, subdivision control, and planning. Proponents of the bill argue that stalled smart growth projects such as the new Assembly Square in Somerville (shown at right) would be beneficiaries of the new bill.

The bill, H.B. 1859 — unprecedented in its scope and reach — would change Massachusetts zoning and land use law as we know it. Approval not required (ANR) plans and current variance review standards would be gone, while “inclusionary zoning” (another potential iteration of the state’s conversional affordable housing 40B law) would be expanded along with the legality of “impact fees” — mandatory payments from developers to towns to mitigate development impacts.

The principal sponsor, Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Worthington Democrat unveiled the bill during an event this week at the Statehouse. Versions of this bill have been introduced before, but I have not seen so many legislators in support of the bill as before. Rep. Kulik said the goal is to pass the bill by the end of this year’s formal legislative session on July 31, 2013.

A summary of the bill is as follows:

  • Abolishes ANR plans, a law that allows subdivisions to be built with no planning board review or approval if the proposed homes front an existing road.
  • Allows a community to require only a simple majority vote to change a zoning law. Now, a two thirds vote at a town meeting is needed to change a zoning law.
  • Authorizes “inclusionary zoning,” which allows a community to require that a percentage of homes in a new development be affordable. In exchange, a developer could build more homes on a lot than permitted under zoning.
  • Allows a majority vote on a zoning or planning board in order to issue a special permit. Currently, it takes a two thirds vote to approve a special permit. The bill establishes a method for extending a special permit, which now can be issued for up to two years before it needs to be reprocessed.
  • Approves impact fees for a community to recoup some of the capital costs for private developments.
  • Creates an alternative process to resolve disputes among applicants, municipal officials and the public. Allows for a “neutral facilitator” to work through difficulties in a proposed development.
  • Overhauls the current law on issuing variances from zoning ordinances or bylaws. According to supporters of the bill, the current law is too restrictive for property owners and towns, tying the hands of members of zoning boards and preventing them from solving many simple problems for owners. The bill establishes reasonable procedures for variances while still maintaining a community’s ability to set conditions or reject a variance.
  • Creates the option of consolidated permitting for projects. Developers currently often need multiple permits from boards with different jurisdictions and requirements and reviews that sometimes take years to complete.
  • Rewrites a law that allows for master plans. The bill updates the elements of a master plan to include five requirements: goals and objectives, housing, natural resources and energy, land use and zoning and putting the plan into effect.
  • Allows local regulations to require dedicating up to 5 percent of subdivision land for park or playground use by residents.

In my opinion, some of the provisions are great ideas such as providing a consolidated “one-stop shopping” forum for all permitting in a town, reforming the variance standards, and providing a dispute resolution forum for local disputes. Other provisions will be much more controversial such as the inclusionary zoning and impact fees. This is a sweeping change in Massachusetts zoning and land use law, and I will be monitoring it closely. Thank you to Attorney Donald Pinto at the Massachusetts Land Use Monitor for alerting me to the bill.

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539w-1.jpgRuling Calls Into Question Boston Ordinance Prohibiting 5 or More Students In One Unit

Those screams you are hearing now on Comm. Ave. aren’t the students. They are the landlords who are undoubtedly rejoicing upon news that the Supreme Judicial Court just issued a major ruling in how student rentals occupancy limits  – indeed all rentals — will be treated by housing inspectors and licensing authorities. This is an important decision which may have far-ranging implications across the state and not just to student housing.

The closely watched case is City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties (download link to case herewhere the SJC has held that renting to 4 or more students in one apartment unit of a two and three family home is not a “lodging house” requiring a special license under the Massachusetts lodging housing law, provided that the apartment meets all other sanitary and building code square footage occupancy thresholds. The state code requires 150 s.f. of living space for the first occupancy and 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space), and 70 s.f. of bedroom space for the 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom). This decision applies state-wide and to every type of rental housing, including multi-families, buildings and townhouses.

The timing of the ruling is interesting in light of the recent fatal fire involving an overcrowded student apartment house in Allston and Mayor Menino’s recent rental property registration and inspection rules.

Court’s Reasoning: Apartments ≠ Lodging Houses

For history buffs, the opinion is fun to read as it traces the Lodging House Law back to the days of brothels, houses of ill-repute and tenements. Using a common-sense analysis, Justice Lenk reasoned that lodging houses, which are essentially temporary rentals of rooms without such amenities as a separate kitchens and bathrooms, are quite different from the modern day apartment units with its more expensive amenities. The court ruled that if an apartment satisfies the state sanitary and building code provisions for the amount of living/sleeping space, utilities, egress, etc., then it would be not be deemed a lodging house despite the number of unrelated occupants.

City of Boston Undergrad Student Rule On the Chopping Block?

In the City of Boston, a new zoning ordinance went into effect in 2008 prohibiting 5 or more undergraduate students from living in one apartment unit. I think it’s a fair statement to say that the College Hill ruling effectively overrules this ordinance.

The other impact of this ruling is we should see an push for even more increased density in apartment rental housing which is exactly what Mayor Menino and the City of Boston doesn’t want.

More Press Coverage:  Banker & Tradesman, Boston Globe, Worcester Telegram

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Greater Boston landlord tenant attorney who represents rental property owners throughout Boston and Massachusetts. You can contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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19 Students Crammed Into Two Family Death Trap

allston-2This story makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, this practice is endemic in the Allston-Brighton area as local landlords frequently exploit the countless students in the area. You can expect the City of Boston ISD to start cracking down on these slumlords big-time.

As reported today on Boston.com, the owner of the Allston two family residence on Linden Street where a Boston University student died in a fire this weekend was cited today for operating an illegal rooming house because she allegedly allowed 19 people to live in a two-family home. Landlord Anna Belokurova was also cited for failing to obtain proper permits before creating bedrooms in the basement of the building at 87 Linden St., where a three-alarm fire Sunday killed Binland Lee, a 22-year-old BU marine sciences student from Brooklyn, N.Y.

A City of Boston ordinance also says that no more than four un­related undergraduate students are permitted to live in a dwelling, while authorities say that at least six of the 19 residents were BU students.

The city last inspected the building in 1992 when it approved a prior owner’s plan to convert a single-family home into a two-family. Those modifications included a firewall that closed the internal stairway between the first and second floors, creating a maze-like path from one story to another, ­interrupted by a steel door that served as a divider between the units,the Globe reported today.

A quick search on the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds indicates that Ms. Belokurova was under financial distress, as several foreclosure and condo lien proceedings were filed against her in recent years. Perhaps this is why she attempted to pack tenants in her rental property like sardines.

The code violations are going to be the least of Ms. Belokurova’s concerns as the family of the deceased student is likely readying a wrongful death lawsuit. Again, there is just no excuse for flaunting the law like this, especially given the tragic end-result.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein is a well-known Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. You can reach him via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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Massachusetts real estate closing attorneyExpands Realtors’ Disclosure Liability and Invalidates Exculpatory Clause In Standard Form Purchase and Sale Agreement

It’s been a very tough week for Boston, to say the least. (Please consider donating to the One Boston Fund over here —>).

Unfortunately I have some more bad news for Massachusetts real estate agents, as the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled against a Realtor for failing to properly verify a representation made on MLS concerning a listing’s zoning classification. The closely watched case is DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. (SJC-11168) (embedded below).

Zoned For Business or Residential?

The lawsuit was brought by a buyer of a hair salon business who relied upon what turned out to be erroneous information supplied by the listing agent (through information provided by the seller). The broker represented on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and newspaper advertising that the property was zoning “Business B,” which allowed a hair salon. Further, the broker placed at the property copies of pages from the town’s zoning by-law that listed hair salons as “Permitted Business Uses” in the Business B District. The property was not, in fact, zoned for business use; it was zoned residential, thereby prohibiting the hair salon the buyer wanted to open at the property. The buyer sued for misrepresentation and violations of the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A.

Ruling: Realtors Have Duty to Exercise “Reasonable Care” In Making Zoning Representations

In an unanimous opinion by Justice Barbara Lenk, the SJC stated that while a real estate broker may ordinarily rely upon information provided by his client, where such reliance is unreasonable in the circumstances, an agent has a duty to independently investigate the information before conveying it to a prospective buyer.

The court ultimately held that all Massachusetts real estate agents have a duty to exercise reasonable care in making representations as to a property’s zoning designation.

Here, the owner testified that he told the real estate broker that the property was zoned “Residential Business B.”  The experienced broker apparently knew that there was no such zoning district in Norwell, and instead advertised the property as zoned “Business B.”  In addition, the broker was aware of no prior business use of the property, and had observed houses – not businesses – adjoining the property on either side.  Based on these facts, the SJC concluded that a jury could find that the broker was on notice that the information provided by the owner was unreliable, and acted unreasonably in representing the property as zoned “Business B” without conducting any further investigation.

Exculpatory Clause in Standard Form P&S Not Applicable

The SJC also rejected the broker’s argument that the exculpatory clause in the standard form purchase and sale agreement barred the buyer’s claims. The familiar contract language provides:

The BUYER acknowledges that the BUYER has not been influenced to enter into this transaction nor has he relied upon any warranties or representations not set forth or incorporated in this agreement or previously made in writing, except for the following additional warranties and representations, if any, made by either the SELLER or the Broker(s): NONE.

The justices held that, under the confusing, double-negative language quoted above, a buyer can rely on prior written representations that are not set forth or incorporated in the agreement. Therefore, the agreement did not protect the broker from liability arising from the written misrepresentations in the newspaper ad, the MLS listing, and the inapplicable zoning by-law placed at the property.

The SJC has sent the case back to the trial court for a possible jury trial or, most likely, towards settlement. And hopefully the Greater Boston Real Estate Board is re-drafting its poorly worded exculpatory clause.

Advice For Realtors Going Forward

  • Do NOT say or write anything on MLS or anywhere else concerning a property’s zoning status. Make the buyer conduct his/her own independent research.
  • If your MLS requires input of zoning status, put the zoning with the following disclaimer:  *subject to buyer verification
  • Never trust your client when it comes to information concerning the property. I hate to say this, but when it comes to disclosures, it’s true.
  • Always independently verify information about the property from available public sources. Here, the agent could have simply gone down to the town planning office to verify whether the property was zoned commercial or residential.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts attorney with substantial experience in real estate disclosure litigation brought by buyers against Realtors. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

Dewolfe v. Hingham Center

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Breaking: Attorney General Strikes Down Wakefield Ban on Dispensary

Hazy Legal Landscape Providing Angst to Town Planners

Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved the Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative/Question 3 (click for full text), opening the door to the opening of at least 35 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state in 2013. But, the bigger question is whether the same voters and town leaders will support the opening of dispensaries on their own street corners and downtown areas. Many towns and cities are already gearing up for a fight over the locations, as one marijuana law firm is already scheduling seminars on how to open up dispensaries in Framingham. In litigious Massachusetts, we can certainly expect aggrieved abutters to challenge the opening of what they call “pot shops” next to their residences and businesses. The actual opening of marijuana dispensaries could be years away due to litigation and opposition.

Up To 35 Marijuana Dispensaries in 2013

The ballot law authorizes the opening of up to 35 dispensaries in 2013, and the Department of Public Health retains authority to open more later if demand is there. The law requires that at least one dispensary must be located in each of Massachusetts’ 14 counties, but caps each county at no more than 5 locations. The law seeks an accelerated rollout of dispensaries. Treatment centers can file applications as early as January 1, 2013, and open up to 120 days later, subject to the rollout of regulations by the state Department of Public Health.

Possible Target Locations

Based on size, county seat, and demographics, likely locations for marijuana dispensaries in Eastern Massachusetts would include: ((This is my own opinion/analysis.))

  • Boston, Roxbury/Dorchester/Mattapan, South Boston (Suffolk County)
  • Cambridge, Lowell, Framingham, Marlborough, Waltham, Woburn (Middlesex County) ((The location of dispensaries in Middlesex county — Massachusetts’ most populous county — will be a huge battle.))
  • Lawrence, Salem, Peabody, Lynn (Essex County)
  • Dedham, Quincy, Brookline, Franklin (Norfolk County)
  • Brockton, Plymouth, Middleboro (Plymouth County)
  • Taunton, New Bedford (Bristol County)
  • Worcester (Worcester County)

A Smoky Legal Landscape

The ballot provision, however, is very murky as to how cities and towns are supposed to handle the potential influx of dispensaries. This is causing town leaders to scramble for legal guidance as to whether they should either attempt to block locations wholesale or enact special zoning districts regulating the placement of dispensaries.

As for any attempt to block the opening of marijuana centers, the question will have to be answered by the courts as the law is silent as to whether municipalities have this power. The legal issues surrounding municipal zoning and siting of medical marijuana dispensaries will likely follow similar cases involving methadone clinics, alcohol treatment centers/sober houses and even adult entertainment venues — all uses which are legal, yet subject to reasonable zoning governance. Additionally, treatment centers could seek protection from the American’s With Disabilities Act and other disability laws which protect cancer, HIV, glaucoma and other qualified patients who are entitled to receive medical marijuana.

I am of the opinion that a municipality cannot enact an ordinance or by-law which will block a marijuana dispensary from opening in town as long as the dispensary has complied with all DPH regulations. The town, however, can utilize its zoning powers to regulate where in town such a dispensary can be located, so long as the town does not enact illegal “spot zoning” in so doing.

While medical marijuana may have passed fairly easily on Election Day, it will probably be some time before Massachusetts sorts out all the legal issues as to where these dispensaries should go.

I am going to keep this post updated with news articles and posts about the new law and reaction to it, below.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience Massachusetts zoning and real estate attorney. If you are concerned or have questions about the new Medical Marijuana Law, please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Fate of New Long Wharf Waterfront Restaurant At Stake

A neighborhood fight to preserve prime public waterfront space at the tip of Boston’s Long Wharf will be heard by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in November. Ten North End neighbors — termed the “North End Ten” –  have been battling the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for six years over the city’s plan to lease the space to a restaurateur who wants to build “Doc’s Long Wharf,” a new pub style restaurant and bar at the scenic location. Residents argue that the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before public open space can be converted to other uses.

The legal issues in the case are rather complicated, dealing with historic uses of Long Wharf and whether it was dedicated to public use as open space and is thus protected under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to effect a disposition or change in use of the land. The BRA’s original proposal was for a 220-seat pub that would have replaced the pavilion located beyond the Marriott Long Wharf hotel and Chart House restaurant. BRA officials have argued that the restaurant would help activate the waterfront. Residents argued it would create more noise and disturbance in a picturesque park area.

This case really exemplifies why Massachusetts and the City of Boston have a bad reputation for real estate permitting. If you ever been down to this area at the tip of Long Wharf, you know it’s screaming out for better use. Right now, it’s often inhabited by skateboarders and vagrants, annoying folks trying to soak in the beautiful views of Boston Harbor. I think that a nice restaurant with stunning harbor views and an outdoor patio area would be amazing and a great addition to the under-utilized end of that pier. Under the proposed Chapter 91 license, the proposed use would maintain public access along the wharf. It was the same situation with Rowes Wharf decades ago, and now look at that space. It is a model of waterfront mixed use development.

But 10 neighborhood activists disagree, and the travesty is that they can derail this project for years. Indeed, the lead plaintiff, Sanjoy Mahajan, lives a mile away from Long Wharf on Jackson Street. The other plaintiffs are scattered throughout North End proper, buffered from the proposed restaurant by the massive Marriott Long Wharf, the harbor and Christopher Columbus Park. These activists are not remotely affected by the proposed restaurant in terms of noise and the like. Notably, not one resident of Harbor Towers, the residential condominium closest to Long Wharf, have participated in this legal challenge.

I hope that even if the SJC rules that a 2/3rds legislative vote is required here, that our elected officials will not cave in to the whims of a few locals at the expense of the public at large.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and zoning attorney. Mr. Vetstein frequently represents Boston residents and companies in zoning matters before City of Boston zoning and licensing boards.

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Local Groups Wield Much Power Over Real Estate Permits & Projects

If you have ever had to deal with zoning or permitting in the City of Boston, you have probably come across local neighborhood “civic associations” in which the fate of your project or permit may unwittingly rest. There is the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Allston Civic Association, and the St. Marks Area Civic Association (Dorchester), to name a few.  Each neighborhood or district has them. They are constituted by various neighborhood activists, watch-dogs, and concerned residents, etc. Many board members go back decades and some groups unfortunately lack younger members representing the new generation of city dwellers.

You will rarely find mention of these groups in the Boston Zoning Code, however, their influence looms large. When you file for a Boston variance or special permit or propose a new project in Boston, the City or BRA will tell you that you must first present your application or project before whatever local civic association has “jurisdiction” over the neighborhood. These groups sit almost as a second zoning board of appeals, except without any rules, regulations or guidelines as to what they may or may not “approve” or “deny.” To their credit, the associations typically have a good sense as to what’s appropriate for the neighborhood and these folks care deeply about their areas. But some members are outwardly hostile to new development and some are even obsessed with conspiracy theories of what developers have planned for their neighborhoods.

A negative review of your project at the local civic association meeting can make your application “dead on arrival” at the Zoning Commission or other licensing board. At the board meeting, the board members will always ask whether the local association are in support or opposition to the project. Only rarely will the board approve a project without the civic association’s full support – and that only occurs if the local pols or Mayor’s Office are in support. As with most real estate issues in the City of Boston, savvy politicking plays a large role.

I’m interested to hear if our readers have had experience with any of these local civic associations, good or bad?  Are they a good/bad thing? Should there be a set of rules or regulations governing how they consider projects?

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate attorney who has handled numerous special permit, variance and permitting applications in the City of Boston.

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Credit: Boston Globe

Mayor Menino Targets Eyesore Satellite Dishes

Consistent with his reputation as the “urban mechanic,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino, along with the City Council, want to pass a new ordinance to clean satellite dish clutter on residential properties in Boston. As reported by the Boston Globe, the proposal would require the removal of all obsolete satellite dishes and ban new installations from facades and other walls facing the street, unless an installer can prove there is no other place to get a signal. Dishes would have to be placed on roofs, in the rear, or on the sides of buildings. East Boston Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who has spearheaded the effort, says that this ordinance will help “save the character of our neighborhoods.’’

Ordinance May Run Afoul of FCC Rules

The proposed ordinance, however, may face legal challenge by the satellite dish industry and affected satellite subscribers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that state or local laws are invalid if they unduly impair the right of a subscriber to receive satellite programming on a one meter dish installed on property within owner or renter’s exclusive use or control. For a person living in a multi-dwelling unit, an area such as a balcony, patio or garden not shared with other tenants would be considered property within the individual’s exclusive control. Under the FCC rule, the only two situations where restrictions are permissible is if (1) the restriction is necessary for a clearly defined, legitimate safety objective; or (2) it is necessary to preserve a historic building.

A Solution: Building Wide Equipment

Granted, the satellite dishes covering buildings in many neighborhoods isn’t the nicest thing to see. See Cambridge Street in Allston, for example. However, since the proposed ordinance is concerned predominantly with aesthetics and not any legitimate safety concerns, it may not survive judicial review.

The FCC rules do, however, permit and encourage building-wide community satellite facilities so all residents can get a strong signal without cluttering up the facade of a building with a myriad of dishes. Perhaps the Mayor and the City Council can work with the satellite providers on getting funding for this equipment rather than waste taxpayer money defending a questionable ordinance.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and zoning attorney. Mr. Vetstein frequently represents Boston residents and companies in zoning matters before City of Boston zoning and licensing boards.

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When you are considering purchasing a home in Massachusetts, the property may have the benefit or burden of an easement. Most easements and restrictions are quite “harmless” and standard, however, some can have a major impact on future expansion possibilities and the right to use portions of the property. In this post, I’m going to go through the most common types of easements and how they can affect property.

What Is An Easement?

In plain English, an easement is a right that another person or company has to use your property. They don’t own your property, but the easement gives them the legal right to use your property as specified in the easement instrument. The property that enjoys the benefit of the easement is sometimes referred to as the “dominant estate,” and the property over, under, or through which the easement runs is sometimes referred to as the “servient estate.” Easements are usually recorded in the registry of deeds, but sometimes they can arise from “implication” or “by necessity.” I’ll explain those later.

Utility Easements

The most common types of easements in Massachusetts are utility easements for such things as overhead and underground power lines, cable lines, gas lines, and water mains. These easements allow the utility companies to use portions of residential property to provide their respective utility services. Sometimes, the easements will show up on a plot plan or survey, and some will be found recorded in the title, usually when the lot was first laid out. The majority of these easements do not materially affect the use and expansion of your property, however, the one type of easement to take note of are high pressure gas line easements.  For obvious safety reasons, these easements usually carry with them strict restrictions on what can be built on or near them.

Driveway or Access Easements

Another common type of easements that are found in Massachusetts are access easements for driveways and the like. Properties with shared driveways will often have easements enabling such sharing– or they should! These easements should also provide for common maintenance and upkeep responsibilities and expense. Other types of access easements include walking and bike paths and beach access – very common down the Cape and on the Islands.

Drainage Easements

Another common type of easements are drainage easements which are typical for newer subdivisions. Drainage easements allow for one lot to drain its storm water onto another or into a detention pond.

Prescriptive Easements

If you have heard of adverse possession, then you know what a prescriptive easement is all about. An easement by prescription is an easement acquired through adverse possession – which is the hostile adverse use of someone else’s property for 20 or more continuous years. Prescriptive easements arise where people have acted as though an easement has existed but there is no instrument of easement recorded at the registry of deeds. For example, a prescriptive easement can arise if a neighbor’s family has used a walking path on the neighbor’s property for over 20 years. twenty years. I’ve written extensively on adverse possession in this post.

Easements by Implication and by Necessity

An easement by implication is found in the law when there is no recorded easement, but where the circumstances show an easement was intended to exist. It usually exists where there is common ownership of a lot, the seller conveys a portion of the land under current ownership, and both parties intended to create an easement at the time of conveyance. If someone claims an easement by implication which negatively affects one’s property, the owner’s title insurance policy, if any, will typically cover that situation. Easements by necessity occur when a property is sold in a land-locked configuration without any legal access. An easement is therefore created “by necessity” to prevent the land-locking. An adverse easement by necessity would also be covered by an owner’s title insurance policy.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Sheppard v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Boston: Appeals Court Overturns Variances, But Does Not Order Tear-Down Of South Boston Rehab Project

Disabled Southie homeowner Robert McGarrell wanted to improve his living situation. McGarrell, who suffered chronic emphysema, planned to rehab his dilapidated bungalow style house with a new townhouse style open floor plan enabling him to get around better with his oxygen tank. After discovering that the foundation was crumbling, he had no choice but to do a full gut rehab.

Abutter Alison Sheppard complained about the perceived impacts of the new house. The front of the new home was 4 feet closer to the front property line, and it extended approximately 4 feet deeper into the lot, bringing it closer to Sheppard’s three-decker house. The proposed house was also larger in mass, having a full second story (under a flat roof) over virtually its entire footprint (with a basement floor opening up to the back yard, as before).

In 1998, McGarrell went to the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals and they told him he needed 5 variances. After revising his design to address some of Sheppard’s concerns, the board granted the variances. Unhappy, Ms. Sheppard appealed to Superior Court.

Approval of Variances Always At Risk of Appeal

The result of this case will not surprise anyone who has experience with Boston zoning and permitting. The Boston Zoning Board of Appeals can be fairly liberal in doling out variances, however, the law says they should be rarely granted only in unique circumstances. I would say 80% of all variances issued by the board are susceptible to reversal on appeal, and the Appeals Court ruled McGarrell’s variances were no different.

The City of Boston has its own special zoning code which is both similar and different from the state-wide zoning code known as Chapter 40A. To obtain a variance, a Boston applicant must show 3 things:

  • Special and peculiar circumstances or conditions of the land or building such as exceptional narrowness, shallowness,  shape of the lot, or exceptional topographical conditions, and that failing to grant zoning relief would deprive the applicant of the reasonable use of such land or structure;
  • For reasons of practical difficulty and demonstrable and substantial hardship, the granting of the variance is necessary for the reasonable use of the land or structure and that the variance is the minimum variance that will accomplish this purpose;
  • Granting of the variance will be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the zoning code, and will not be injurious to the neighborhood or otherwise detrimental to the public welfare.

The Appeals Court ruled that neither McGarrell’s rectangular lot nor dilapidated home was peculiar in any way to those in the neighborhood. The Court also held that McGarrell could have constructed a smaller home on the existing footprint, and that he could not expand his home vertically “as of right.”

Remedy: Second Chance

For McGarrell, the court left the door open for his new home to stand. Usually, in the case of construction built at the risk of permits being overturned, the court will order the new structure torn down, as in the recently publicized Marblehead mansion. Since the board supported McGarrell’s improvement of a dilapidated structure, the court allowed McGarrell to proceed on an alternative path under another section of the zoning code. The case will go back to the board for further findings, and this 14 year legal odyssey will go on.

Lesson: Get Neighborhood Support Early

The lesson here, as with any Boston zoning matter, is to get the support of the abutters and neighbors as early in the process as possible. Sometimes it’s not always possible, so you have to litigate.

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Boston zoning, variance and permitting attorney who has substantial experience with variance and special permit applications before the City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeals and in Superior Court. Please contact him via email (info@vetsteinlawgroup.com) or tel: 508-620-5352.

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Post image for A Different Type Of Tear-Down: Court Orders Million Dollar Marblehead Manse Demolished For Zoning Violation

Expensive Lesson–Build At Your Own Peril

After a 16 year long saga, wealthy Marblehead mansion owner Wayne Johnson’s battle to save his house from a court-ordered wrecking ball has come to an end. The underlying legal saga is convoluted and complicated, but the end result was swift and destructive — the million dollar mansion is now rubble.

Johnson’s battle started in 1995 when he recorded a plan dividing his land into two lots. One lot contained an existing single-family dwelling. The second lot contained a garage. The house lot complied with all zoning dimensional requirements, but the garage lot didn’t comply with lot width requirements. The Building Inspector incorrectly determined that the garage lot complied with all applicable zoning requirements.

Johnson’s neighbors appealed the Building Inspector’s decision, arguing that the new house would greatly diminish their valuable ocean views. The local zoning board allowed the issuance of a building permit. After the building permit issued, the plaintiffs filed an appeal in Land Court and asked for an injunction to prevent construction on the garage lot. The Land Court judge warned Johnson that proceeding with construction was at his peril. In a decision by another judge in May, 2000, the court ordered the building permit to be revoked. However, the court ruled that the house could remain in place while Johnson attempted to obtain appropriate zoning relief.

Johnson, however, was unable to obtain zoning relief. After several unsuccessful appeals, the Land Court ordered Johnson to remove the house by October 4, 2010. Johnson failed to comply with that order, and the neighbors attempted to hold Johnson in contempt. With the threat of contempt and possible jail looming, Johnson finally threw in the towel.

The Land Court ruling can be read here: Schey v. Johnson and is embedded below.

More Press:
Schey v. Johnson

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Massachusetts Plot Plan

Plot Plans, also called Mortgage Inspection Plans, were once part of every Massachusetts real estate purchase closing. These days, some lenders do not require them and I will tell you why in this post. However, despite the limitations of a plot plan, I think it’s a good idea for buyers to purchase a plot plan at closing. The typical cost of a plot plan is around $125.00 so it’s affordable.

While it is not nearly as accurate as a full instrument land survey, a plot plan will give the buyer a visual of the lot lines, the approximate location of the home and accessory structures, and any easements running through the land. Also, when you go to sell your property, a plot plan is helpful for prospective buyers to review as part of the marketing package.

What Is A Plot Plan?

A plot plan, also called a Mortgage Inspection Plan, confirms the following information:

  • Does the house or building, as well as accessory structures (pools, sheds, etc), conform to the local setback zoning by-laws?
  • Does the house or building, as well as accessory structures, fall within the FEMA flood hazard zone (which would require flood insurance)?
  • Are there any building encroachments?
  • Are there any recorded easements running through the property?

In addition to answering these questions, a plot plan includes helpful reference information such as the deed book and page numbers, property plan numbers, land court plan numbers (if applicable), assessor map and lot numbers and F.E.M.A. rate map numbers. This information can be very helpful to the homeowner and a potential buyer as well.

How Is A Plot Plan Prepared?

It is important to point out that a plot plan is NOT a land survey, and is not prepared using standard instrument survey instruments. A plot plan is prepared using visual inspection and measuring tapes only. A physical inspection of the dwelling’s exterior is made, with tape measurements to show the approximate location of the dwelling. The preparer will review the recorded deed and plan(s) obtained at the Registry of Deeds or town offices to determine the lot configuration. Information from the field is merged with record information to create a drawing of the property (the plot plan) and the approximate location of the dwelling on the lot. The flood zone is determined. A quality review performed by Professional Land Surveyor.

The accuracy of a plot plan is usually within two to three feet. The field work involved in preparing the Mortgage Inspection Plan does not include the setting of property line stakes. Therefore, although tape measurements are sufficient to make zoning and flood hazard determinations, the plan should not be used as a substitute for a “Building Permit Plot Plan” or to determine property lines. A plot plan cannot be used as a substitute for a full instrument land survey.

What is Not Provided by a Mortgage Plot Plan?

As stated before, a plot plan has its limitations, which is a reason cited by lenders for not requiring them, such as:

  • No representation is made as to the accuracy of the depicted property lines.
  • No attempt has been made to verify the boundary configuration or, typically, the mathematical correctness of the legal property description.
  • Property corners can not be located based on this type of plan, therefore no fences, hedge rows or other improvements can be determined or located.
  • The location of any improvements shown are approximate, and therefore any planned construction should not be based on the locations as shown.

What is a Certified Plot Plan, Boundary, Land or Instrument Survey?
An accurate instrument land survey involves the location of established monuments or survey control points, which are then mathematically tied in to the property being surveyed. This process utilizes sophisticated, state-of-the-art equipment, and precisely locates both the property lines and the improvements on the property in relation to those property lines. The cost of a full instrument survey can range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the property. You can use a land survey for construction, Land Court, and Registry of Deeds plans.

How Do I Get A Plot Plan?

If your lender requires a plot plan at closing — check your Good Faith Estimate or closing cost worksheet — it will order one for you and you’ll have it at closing. If your lender does not require a plot plan, speak to your closing attorney and they will gladly order one for you!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. Please contact him if you need assistance with a Massachusetts purchase or sale transaction.

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Part 2 of a two part series. For part 1 on filing the Complaint, Venue and Discovery click here.

Expert Testimony

We left off in our last post at the discovery state of litigation. We covered fact discovery of witnesses, but we didn’t address an important component of most real estate litigation cases: experts.

Expert testimony is required when you need to explain to a judge or jury a technical area of the case which is outside the general knowledge of a “regular” person. Experts in a Massachusetts real estate lawsuit can range from appraisers, construction experts, land surveyors, title attorneys, land use planners, civil and wetlands engineers, traffic planners, and handwriting experts. Needless to say, experts are expensive, charging several hundred dollars per hour on an engagement. But they are vitally important. In Massachusetts state court litigation, parties must disclose before trial an expert’s qualifications and a general summary of what the expert will testify to at trial, including his methodology. For litigators like myself, preparing and cross-examining experts is often quite an intellectual challenge and one of the “fun” parts of a trial.

Dispositive Motions

Often in real estate litigation, the case can be decided by way of a “dispositive motion” by the judge prior to trial. In this procedure, called a motion to dismiss or summary judgment, the important facts of the case are undisputed, and the judge can decide the case based on the law. The lawyers will prepare detailed motions, affidavits, and legal briefs, and there will usually be a lengthy hearing before the judge. This procedure will also avoid the need for a trial, saving litigants a much expense. Judges, however, can take a long time deciding a dispositive motion. Months to even a full year is not unheard of.

Pretrial Conference

If the facts of the case are hotly disputed, the case will be set down for a trial date at the pre-trial conference. At the pre-trial conference, the attorneys meet with the judge to discuss readiness for trial, witness lists, expert testimony, unusual legal or evidentiary issues, and the status of settlement talks, if any.

Obtaining a firm trial day these days is pretty much a moving target. It really depends on the county. Middlesex Superior is pretty good at giving firm trial dates, while Norfolk County is not, in my experience.  The Land Court gives out firm trial dates, but has no juries. Prepare to wait several months after the pre-trial conference to get a trial date, which will probably be rescheduled at least once. Massachusetts courts have been beset with budget cuts which has negatively impacted the speed of the courts’ docket. Justice moves slowly in the Commonwealth.

Settlement/Mediation

Given the huge costs and delays of litigation, this is a good place to talk about settlement and mediation. I always explore settlement possibilities of a case early on. If a case can be settled early, both litigants can avoid significant legal expenses and can usually craft a better resolution than a judge or jury can. But clients often come to me very upset and emotional about the situation, so talking settlement may be perceived as “caving in” to the other side. It is not, and clients usually see the light once they get a bill or two from my office.

Mediation is a non-binding settlement process where a neutral mediator (usually a retired judge or experienced attorney) will mediate the dispute between the parties in a structured manner. Both sides get to tell their sides of the story, then the mediator will usually separate the parties into different rooms, shuttling back and forth attempting to broker the peace. There is a cathartic and healing process that often occurs during mediation where parties have a chance to express their anger, resentment, and feelings which can greatly assist the settlement process. Also, the settlement itself often can be much more flexible and creative than what a judge or jury can render after a trial. If mediation does not work out, the case goes back on the trial list. There is no obligation to settle.

Trial

Less than 1% of all civil cases in Massachusetts get to the end of a trial. If your case is in this 1%, prepare yourself for an experience. Jury trials are not for the faint of heart. They are incredibly labor intensive, with the attorneys spending hours upon hours preparing for trial, and burning the midnight oil during the trial itself. The more lawyer time required, the higher the legal bill.

If you are selecting a Massachusetts litigation or trial attorney, ask him or her how many civil jury trials they have done. I’m not talking about former district attorneys who have done a bunch of criminal trials. Complex, civil trials are a totally different animal and call for a lawyer who has done a significant amount of civil trial work. Be wary of any lawyer who claims to have won every trial he has done. There is a saying that a trial lawyer who has never lost a case hasn’t tried many in the first place. Don’t be afraid of small law firm attorneys. In my experience, they are much better trying cases than big firm lawyers who spent the greater part of their careers doing document review and depositions.

Appeals

In the American judicial system, litigants can pretty much appeal anything with impunity. Filing an appeal will usually stop a final judgment from issuing, but in some cases the winning party can ask the losing party to post a bond.

Appeals requires a special skill set, great research, and writing by an experienced Massachusetts appellate attorney. The appeals process can take at least a year or even more to complete. The trial record must be assembled by the trial court. If there was a trial, transcripts need to be ordered from the court reporters or digital tapes and then transcribed. This can take quite a bit of time. Then, the attorneys file lengthy appellate briefs, after which the case is scheduled for oral argument before a panel of appellate justices. After oral argument is held, the court will issue its written opinion, which will either uphold the lower court’s decision, reverse it, or remand it back for a new trial or other action. Appellate opinions are released to the general public and become what is known as the common law of Massachusetts, to be cited as precedent in other cases.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember, litigation should be a last resort, once all attempts at an amicable, reasonable resolution fail.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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For most folks, litigation and courtrooms are as foreign as Belgium. When a new clients comes to me with a potential litigation matter, I spend most of our first consultation discussing the process of litigation and how it works. Then inevitably we have to talk about the cost and expense, which for most lawsuits is a lot more than people expect. In this post, I wanted to provide you with a summary of what happens when you decide to file a Massachusetts real estate litigation and lawsuit, or if you have to defend yourself against one.

First Steps: Filing Or Answering The Complaint & Selecting A Venue

The first step in every Massachusetts lawsuit is the filing of the Complaint, along with a filing fee ($285 in Superior Court). The Complaint sets forth the factual allegations of the lawsuit, along with the formal legal claims such as breach of contract, zoning appeal, adverse possession or fraud.

Most real estate litigation cases where the damages exceed $25,000 are filed in either the Superior Court or the Land Court. (For smaller matters under $25,000 you can file in the local District Court; small claims cases are for $7,500 or less).

The Land Court is a specialized court with expertise in real estate disputes. I’ve written about the Land Court here. The Superior Court is the “jack of all trades” trial court, and hears just about every type of civil and criminal dispute at the trial level. Depending on the facts of the case, there are strategic advantages to filing in either Superior or Land Court.

After the complaint is filed, a Summons is issued which must be formally served by constable or sheriff on the “defendants” in the case. The attorney will arrange for service of the summons and complaint to be made and a sheriff will show up at the defendant’s home or business with the legal papers. Defendants have 20 days to “answer” the complaint. The Answer is a formal response to the Complaint, and the defendants can also assert any “counterclaims” he or she may have against the plaintiff.

Pre-Judgment Remedies

Many real estate litigation cases involve asking the court for some type of relief or action during the initial stages of the lawsuit. This is called “pre-judgment relief.” In many real estate cases, a litigant will ask the court for a lis pendens on property, which is a formal notice of the claim recorded on title. In other cases, a litigant will ask for an injunction or restraining order stopping a landowner from building or taking other adverse action which would injure their property.

Asking a court for such pre-judgment relief requires filing motion papers, legal memoranda and often multiple court hearings where the lawyers will argue the issues before the judge. This will add another level of expense on the case, often quite a bit. I usually give clients a ballpark figure of $5,000 for taking a case through the pre-judgment relief stage–could be less, could be more, depending on the response from the other side.

Often cases can be won or lost at these early stages as a lis pendens can stifle a potential sale or an injunction can shut down a construction site, thereby forcing a favorable settlement. Thus, it is very important to have an experienced and savvy Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney work up the case properly and argue the case forcefully during a pre-judgment remedy proceeding. There are certain ways to increase your chances of success at this stage and even obtain relief without the other side even knowing you are going to court, called ex parte relief, if the situation warrants. (Ex parte in Latin means “from (by or for) one party.”)

Phase 2: Discovery

For cases on the normal track, once the answer is filed and all factual allegations and legal claims are raised in the case, it moves to the next stage: discovery. Discovery is the process where each side shares information about the case with each other. Litigation is not supposed to be a cat-and-mouse-hide-the-ball game.

This is a good time to discuss how long it takes to get to a trial in a Massachusetts lawsuit. With huge budget cuts in the courts, it is taking up to 2+ years for most civil cases to reach trial. Yes, you read that correctly. It can take even more time in some cases. I’ve had a case in Norfolk County (Dedham) ready for trial 3 different times, only to get bumped at the last minute, each time costing the client thousands of dollars in legal fees and months of delay. There is really nothing a litigant can do about these delays (save for settling the case out of court).

The discovery stage is the most labor intensive and expensive part of the case, with lawyers taking depositions of witnesses and filing and answering formal written questions, called interrogatories, and responding to requests for document production. There are often disputes and motions which have to be resolved in this stage. Depositions can easily cost $1,000 each, and discovery in a fairly involved case can run easily up to $10,000 + in legal fees.

For the next post, we will discuss Phase 3: Summary Judgment/Pre-Trial, Going To Trial, and Appeals (click here). Stay tuned!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

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Worcester Businessman Built Regulation Sized Baseball Field In His Backyard

Harking back to the old days when sandlot ballfields were packed with neighborhood kids, David Massad II, a Worcester car dealer, didn’t plow over a cornfield in Iowa to build a baseball field in his yard; he just leveled the trees behind his 7,382-square-foot home in Shrewsbury to build a regulation sized baseball field for his kids and friends to play on. This being Massachusetts, his neighbors cried foul. The case was just decided by the Appeals Court which, not surprisingly, ruled in favor of the neighbors, holding that the homeowner’s association rules and regulations prohibits the use.

Field of Dreams

In 2004, Massad decided to build a regulation sized baseball field, complete with clay infield, fencing, sprinklers and bleachers, behind his upscale Grey Ledge development home in Shrewsbury. After neighbors cried foul, Mr. Massad and his wife just lost a legal battle with neighbors who say they didn’t buy season tickets to ball games when they purchased their homes. Massad, meanwhile, says he was just trying to provide a place for kids to play ball in a town that sorely lacks ball fields.

According to the Worcester Telegram, “It sounded pretty simple,” said Massad, 52, whose business is only coincidentally named Diamond Chevrolet. “The kids needed a place to play, so I built a field. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve never charged anyone to use it.” The Massads even obtained a special permit from the zoning board to allow for the field.

Massad Field, Shrewsbury. Credit: Worcester Telegram

As reported by the Telegram, the field may be isolated, set well in the rear of Massad’s 14-acre property, but the issue is the cars that go up and down the development to get there. In 2009, Massad built a private driveway and parking lot on his property, but players and fans still must use the private common driveway that lines the eight-home development and ends at Massad’s handsome brick Colonial at the top of the cul-de-sac.

HOA Covenants & Restrictions Control

The Grey Ledge Homeowners Association had recorded standard Covenants and Restrictions providing that:

“The Lots shall be used for single family residential purposes only.” It further provides that “[t]he acceptance of a Deed to a Lot by any Owner shall be deemed an acceptance of the provisions of this Master Declaration, the Trust and the By-Laws and rules and regulations of the Grey Ledge Association, as the same shall be amended from time to time, and an agreement by such Owner to be bound by them in all respects;” and that “[t]he Lots … shall have the mutual burden and benefit of the following restrictions on the use and occupation thereof, which restrictions, except as otherwise provided or allowed by law, shall run with the land.”

The Appeals Could held that, despite the Massads obtaining local zoning approval for the baseball field, it was not consistent with the character and planned use of the luxury development as a single family enclave. “As matter of law, the hosting of organized league baseball games (whether formal games or mere practices) for such leagues as American Legion Baseball and Worcester Heat violates the master declaration’s restriction to use for ‘single family residential purposes only,’” Justice Joseph Grasso held.

On legal grounds, the ruling is not surprising and correct, in my opinion. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Massad and his neighbors couldn’t have worked out a “collective bargaining revenue sharing” plan so the kids could just play ball.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney and devoted Red Sox fan. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

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Update: SJC Reverses, Rules in favor of Landlords

Major Impact To College Rental Market: Landlords Cannot Rent To 4 or More Unrelated Adults In One Unit Without Lodging License

In a decision which will significantly impact landlords renting apartments to students near local colleges and universities and perhaps beyond Boston and Amherst, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that renting to 4 or more unrelated students in one apartment unit is an illegal “lodging house” unless a special license is obtained.

In City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties LLC (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 8, 2011), several landlords renting to Holy Cross students challenged the legality of the Massachusetts lodging housing law. The law requires a lodging housing license for any unit rented to four or more unrelated adults. City of Worcester officials cited the College Hill landlords for renting to 4 students in each apartment unit, without a proper license and without sprinkler systems. The students all signed a 12 month lease. The Housing Court sided with the city, and when the landlords balked, found them in contempt.

Lodging Housing Law

Although enacted nearly a hundred years ago in 1918, the court found that the lodging house law has relevance today with respect to the common practice of overcrowding persons in an unsuitable space and fire prevention. To obtain a lodging house license, an applicant must have sprinkler systems in the premises, which most landlords find too expensive to install.

The landlords argued that a group of four college students was a “family unit” not lodgers. While the landlords get credit for creative lawyering, the court didn’t buy the argument, holding that “we have no doubt that four or more unrelated adults, sharing housing while attending college, is not an arrangement that lends itself to the formation of a stable and durable household.”

Impact Outside College Towns?

Prior to this decision, housing authorities typically allowed 4 or more unrelated adults to occupy single apartments as roommates without a lodging license provided that minimum space requirements were met: 150 s.f. of living space for the first person, 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space); 70 s.f. of bedroom space for 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom).

After the College Hill decision, however, this generally accepted interpretation is now in question. The court did not mention adult roommates, nor did it make any distinction between undergraduates or adults. In my opinion, using the College Hill ruling, housing authorities, who want to crack down on unruly, crowded apartment dwellers, may seek to require lodging licenses for apartments occupied by 4 or more unrelated persons.

Boston: Rule Is 5+ Undergrads

In the City of Boston, a new zoning ordinance went into effect in 2008 prohibiting 5 or more undergraduate students from living in one apartment unit. We will see how the Boston Inspectional Services Dept. interprets the College Hill ruling.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate and landlord-tenant attorney. Please contact him if you need legal assistance with rental property legal issues.

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220px-OldSuffolkCoCtThe Real Estate Specialty Court

Established in 1898 and still staffed with only a handful of judges, the Massachusetts Land Court is the smallest of all the Massachusetts trial courts. But for real estate practitioners, it is the most important court in the Commonwealth.

The Land Court is known for its real estate expertise, and is the starting place for almost all foreclosures. Its judges, most of whom were practicing real estate attorneys, are widely regarded as experts in the intricacies of Massachusetts real estate law. Indeed, the diminutive Land Court has recently been at the forefront of national foreclosure law with Judge Keith Long’s seminal decision in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez which made national front page news for several days.

Registered Land

The Land Court was originally established to oversee the Massachusetts land registration system. Approximately 15-20% of all property in Massachusetts is registered land. Non-registered land is referred to as recorded land.

The purpose of the registered land system — modeled after the Australian Torrens system — is to make land titles as clear and defect-free as possible. To register land, property owners have to go through a fairly rigorous process where a land court title examiner searches and certifies title and a formal plan of the land is approved. All defects and title issues are fully vetted and resolved, if possible, and upon registration, the land is deemed free of defects except noted by the examiner, including claims of adverse possession.

Registered land is freely transferable, and there is no discernible difference in examining title to registered land, other than recording which involves a few more steps than non-registered land.

Foreclosures

The Land Court is widely known as the starting point for the vast majority of foreclosures in Massachusetts. Although Massachusetts is considered a “non-judicial” foreclosure state — that is, where a mortgage holder does not need a court order to foreclosure — the state has held onto the U.S. Soldier’s and Sailor’s Civil Relief Act which gives military members protections against foreclosure. In Massachusetts, mortgage holders bring a “Soldier’s and Sailor’s Act” proceeding in the Land Court to ensure that the property owner is not an active military member. Once the Land Court issues a judgment, the foreclosure can move forward. A Soldier’s and Sailor’s proceeding is not the forum in which to challenge a foreclosure. A homeowner needs to file a separate lawsuit in Superior Court or Land Court to do so.

Quiet Title, Partition and Title Disputes

In the last 20 years, lawmakers have widely expanded the Land Court’s jurisdiction to hear types of cases. Today, the Land Court regularly hears cases involving zoning and subdivision appeals, quiet title and actions to try title, disputes involving mortgage priorities, tax takings, adverse possession, real estate contract disputes, petitions to partition, and more. I do most of my litigation work in the Land Court’s civil session.

Strategically, certain cases are better off in the Land Court and vice-versa. An important distinction with Land Court is that there are no jury trials. Thus, if you want a jury trial, the case should be filed in Superior Court, not Land Court. For cases which are based on the interpretation of contractual language or complex real estate legal issues, Land Court is probably a good choice. For cases which have an “emotional” component and less complex, a Superior Court jury session is probably the better choice.

New Permitting Session

Most recently, in 2007, the Legislature created a special Land Court permitting session to hear zoning and subdivision appeals for larger projects involving over 25 units or over 25,000 square feet of gross floor area. With the goal to expedite zoning disputes which have roadblocked development, cases in the new session will be assigned to a single judge for the life of the case and will be assigned one of three expedited tracks. For the first time, these tracks provide deadlines for both getting to trial (ranging from six to 12 months) and for receiving a decision after trial or summary judgment (ranging from two months to four months).

Land Court decisions aren’t widely available, but recent rulings can be found here.

If you have a complicated real estate dispute, your attorney should always seriously consider bringing the claim in the Land Court where the judge will understand the issues and keep tight control over the case.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Land Court Attorney who has litigated numerous cases in the Massachusetts Land Court. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Interdunal Freshwater Wetland - Sandy Neck, Barnstable, MA_resizeOverview of Wetlands Regulations

Massachusetts has one of the most restrictive wetlands and environmental codes in the U.S. Simply put you cannot do anything – not clear, cut, fill, dump (not even leaves, grass clippings or dirt), alter, grade, landscape or build upon — any wetland resource area without a permit from your local town Conservation Commission.

The state Wetlands Protection Act and Rivers Protection Act impose stringent restrictions and oversight of real estate development in and near coastal wetlands areas, such as salt marshes, dunes, beaches, and banks, and inland wetlands areas, such as swamps, marshes, rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes. Many homeowners are often surprised to learn their property contains or is near protected wetlands or is within a restricted buffer zone which will impact their ability to construct an addition, deck, pool, driveway, or cut trees.

Check With the Local Conservation Agent First

A buyer and their Realtor should always research whether there are wetlands on or near the property. First, walk the property — the whole thing. I’m shocked at the number of times agents don’t do this. Next, check the state Geographic Information (Mass GIS) maps online which shows most wetland areas. Next, call over to the local Conservation Agent and pull out the local wetlands maps. The conservation agent should be able to answer most questions and will know whether there are conservation restrictions on the property.

Wetlands Areas & Buffer Zones

The state Wetlands Protection Act and local Wetlands Bylaws include a number of different types of wetlands, and wetland-related areas called “Resource Areas.” These include rivers and streams (“perennial” if they run year round, and “intermittent” if they dry up seasonally); lakes and ponds; the vegetated wet areas bordering rivers, streams, lakes or ponds (“bordering vegetated wetlands”); the 100-year floodplain along rivers and streams; and isolated areas that flood seasonally, such as vernal pools. The determination of wetlands is a science and very complicated.

The first 200 feet from the edge of a perennial stream are regulated as “riverfront area.” The first 100 feet from a vegetated wetland or stream bank are regulated as “buffer zone.” Some towns have even more stringent by-laws and buffer zones, so always check with your town’s conservation commission.

Any work performed within these resource areas and the 200 or 100 foot buffer zones are strictly regulated, and a permit (called an Order of Conditions) must be obtained by the local Conservation Commission before any work starts. The Conservation Commission may decide not to allow the project. Or it may allow it, with a myriad of conditions to protect the wetlands, including hay bales, silt fencing, wetlands replication areas, and other performance standards. Furthermore, disgruntled abutters may appeal the issuance of a conservation permit, so it’s a very good idea to get your neighbors on board before you appear before the conservation commission. It’s also a good idea to hire an experienced Massachusetts wetlands attorney to guide you through the process.

Aquifer Protection

Lastly, many Massachusetts towns rely on municipal wells as their public water supply. In response to threats and actual contamination of drinking water wells, towns have enacted aquifer protection districts. These areas are usually depicted as “overlays” on more customary zoning districts. The use of septic systems, underground fuel oil storage tanks, and other potential contaminants is often closely regulated in aquifer protection districts. Because of the costs of remediating contaminated public wells and locating alternative sources of potable water, state and local governments are taking other measures, such as restricting the size and use of septic systems to protect underground water resources.

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