Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 12, 2022

Fed. Dist. Court in MA Denies Motion to Dismiss Claims Alleging Violations of the FHA, Equal Protection, Substantive Due Process in Alleged Discrimination Against Developers

This post was authored by Christina Conroy, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Touro Law Center

The Valentins, a Black couple of Haitian origin who have lived in the town of Natick, Massachusetts for about 30 years and work as condominium developers, submitted an application for a permit to develop a condominium project and establish affordable housing in their predominately white neighborhood. Following a denial, they brough this action was brought under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) against the town, the town planning board, the town historical commission and the chair of the town historical commission for the violation of their due process and equal protection rights. They allege that the denial of their application was motivated by discrimination on the basis of color, race and national origin. The Complaint also alleged that the Board had not denied a permit for any condominium project for over a decade. Noteably, each of these projects had been sponsored by white applicants. In response, the Town moved to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim.

In early 2019, the Valentins worked with Natick Planning Board to develop the Historic Preservation Bylaw. This bylaw sought to preserve historic properties by permitting redevelopment in the form of condominiums and other multi-family units. In August 2019, they applied for a special permit and site plan approval, pursuant to the new bylaw, to renovate an existing historical structure to allow eleven condominium units, as well as affordable housing units.

Originally, the Planning Board agreed that the project would benefit the historic character of the town, as well as preserve the historic structure, but several neighbors began a campaign against the project and created a website to promote their message. The website featured comments where the Valentins were attacked with racist remarks and accusations of manipulating the new bylaw. In response to the neighborhood opposition, the Board informed the Valentins that a substantial revision of the plans must be done before they approve the project.

After revisions were submitted, a Town Meeting was held where the Board requested assistance from Town Counsel as to whether the revised proposal was authorized under the new bylaw.  Counsel issued an opinion that the revised proposal was indeed authorized under the new bylaw, but the Town Board disregarded the opinion and interpreted the bylaw to curtail the proposed project. The Board suggested the Valentins withdraw their application without prejudice and the Valetins agreed under the guise that they had no further options available.

Two months later the Valentins renewed their application, but the neighbors had begun a new campaign to repeal the new bylaw. The Town Board delayed their decision of the application until the repeal was decided at the Town Meeting. In total, twenty-nine hearings and 14 work-group session were held in regards to the project over a seven-month period.

The Town Board declared two new interpretations of the bylaw in reference to the definition of “historic building” and size limitations for all new construction.  Contrary to the legal opinion of Town Counsel, the Board reduced the gross volume of the proposed project.  Again, the Valentins submitted revised plans which reduced the number of units from eleven to seven which then was compliant under the new bylaw. Chair of the Historic Commission, Stephen Evers, who had been corresponding with the neighbors, then alerted Town Board members that he was concerned that the project was too large. He also joined the campaign to repeal the bylaw. During the following public meeting the Town Board alerted Ms. Valentin that any repeal of the bylaw would not adversely affect any application currently before the Board.  The following month, the Town Board voted to approve the layout of the project, but did not move to discuss or vote on the special permit, as it had done for other developments, and instead scheduled it after the Town Meeting vote to repeal the bylaw. The bylaw was repealed and at the next meeting the Board denied the Valentin’s application solely on the basis of the repeal of the bylaw.

The Court found that the developers stated disparate treatment claim under FHA; further that they sufficiently alleged that town interfered with their rights under FHA; and that they properly stated both an equal protection and substantive due process claim.  However the Court found that the developers failed to state procedural due process claim and that they failed to state MCRA claim. Finally the Court held that the comments by chair of town’s historical commission in opposition to plan by developers were not entitled to protection under First Amendment.

Valentin v. Town of Natick, 2022 WL 4481412 (D. Mass. Sept. 27, 2022).

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