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Law School Case Brief

Kimberk v. Bos. Zoning Comm'n. - 7 LCR 214 (Mass. Land Ct. 1999)


Though reaffirming the heavy burden borne by a party challenging a zoning amendment, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has commented that: "The characterization of a challenger's burden as one of proof beyond reasonable doubt may not be instructive. A better characterization is that the challenger must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the zoning regulation is arbitrary and unreasonable, or substantially unrelated to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare." Put another way, the party challenging the amendment has the burden of proving facts which compel a conclusion that the question whether the amendment falls within the enabling statute is not even fairly debatable.


Defendant Boston Zoning Commission (BZC) approved an amendment to the zoning map of the City of Boston to allow the development of a mixed use project, referred to as "Millennium Place" ("Project"), on a parcel of land between Tremont and Washington Streets in Boston. Plaintiff Frederick Kimberk, as trustee of 177 Tremont Street Trust ("Trust"), filed an action in Massachusetts superior court against BZC and defendant New Commonwealth Center Limited Partnership ("New Commonwealth"), the proponent of the Project. The Trust contended that the map amendment was invalid on grounds of "spot zoning" because it singled out a single parcel of land for treatment different from the surrounding area. The Trust also sought a declaration that the Project did not meet certain requirements under the Boston Zoning Code ("Code") for designation as a planned development area ("PDA"). Defendants requested that the action be transferred to the Massachusetts Land Court, which was granted. Defendants then filed motions for summary judgment.


Was BZC's decision to approve the map amendment invalid as "spot zoning”?




The court granted defendants' motions for summary judgment. The court observed that in a claim of spot zoning, as in any challenge to the validity of an amendment to a local zoning provision, every presumption was to be made in favor of the amendment, and its validity would be upheld unless it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that it conflicted with the enabling act. Spot zoning occurred, the court explained, when there was a singling out of one lot for different treatment from that accorded to similar surrounding land indistinguishable from it in character, all for the economic benefit of the owner of that lot. The undisputed facts established that the Project would produce numerous and significant public benefits. The Trust produced no evidence to demonstrate either that the Project would not serve the public welfare, or that the BZC's approval of the map amendment was designed solely for New Commonwealth's private economic benefit. Nor did the Trust demonstrate any likelihood that it would be able to meet its burden in that respect at trial; indeed, the Trust did not appear to contest in any significant respect the fact that development of the project will generate the public benefits described.

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