Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 28, 2012

MA App. Court Upholds Amendment Creating Overlay District to facilitate University Expansion and Finds No Spot Zoning

Farrington and Lang appealed a land court decision that upheld the validity of an amendment to the zoning ordinance of the City of Cambridge. The amendment created an overlay district intended to facilitate the expansion plans of Lesley University. The amendment made two basic zoning changes. First, it amended the zoning map extending business district C 160 feet so as to include church lots. Second, it made focused adjustments to the underlying requirements by relaxing some and increasing others. Farrington and Lang own property that abuts the lots and issue and contend that the amendment: 1) constitutes “spot zoning,” 2) was adopted under unlawful procedures, 3) misuses the overlay district zoning procedures, 4) violates the city’s guidelines for development on Massachusetts Avenue, and 5) violates the regulations of two preexisting overlay districts.

Illegal spot zoning is the singling out of one area of land for different treatment that accorded to similar surrounding land.  The city points out that they engaged in substantial zoning analysis which resulted in findings that rezoning would confer a public benefit to the city. Further, the record indicates that the city council did not hastily adopt the amendment; various planning, meetings and negotiations were held for three years prior to approving the plans. The appeals court found no issue with the spot zoning claim, reasoning that the enactment of zoning is a legislative act that must be sustained when there is reasonable basis to support it.

Challenges to zoning adoptions on the basis of illegal procedures, and specifically ones that are the product of contract zoning requires the court to consider whether the action was contrary to the best interest of the city. Despite the plaintiffs’ claims that Lesley’s commitment of $500,000 toward mitigation measures constitutes illegal contract zoning, the court held that as long as the amendment serves a public purpose, voluntary payment alone cannot invalidate the legislative act.

The plaintiffs also argue that the regulations in the city’s zoning board prohibit construction of buildings for private educational use in the residence B district. The defendants contend that the lots are no longer zoned as residence B and pursuant to Home Rule Amendment the city is free to amend the zoning ordinance where doing so plausibly may be said to advance the public welfare. Here, it can plausibly be said that the ordinance will further public welfare.

Plaintiffs also argue the zoning ordinance does not permit one overlay district to be superimposed on another, and if done the purpose should be to impose more restrictive zoning requirements. However, the ordinance is silent as to whether an overlay district may be imposed on another and absent such regulation, the court defers to the legislation of the city. Further, the court notes that there is no case law requiring that an overlay district impose more stringent zoning requirements that the underlying zoning area.

Farrington v. City of Cambridge, 81 Mass. App. Ct. 1135 (MA Ct of App. 5/14/2012)

The opinion can be accessed at:,33

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