What happens when a town institutes wetland “no disturbance” zones that prevent a landowner from building on her lot? In a recent case in Falmouth, MA, it resulted in the town owing the landowner nearly $1 million for denying her the economic value of the land. The use of zoning bylaws by towns to regulate and restrict growth is not a new phenomenon in Massachusetts but, as Falmouth recently learned, it can sometimes be a costly decision.

On Friday, December 9, 2016, a Barnstable Superior Court jury found that the wetlands protection regulations setting “no disturbance” zones within 100 feet of salt marshes and 50 feet of coastal banks deprived a land owner from building a single-family house on her lot. When the owner’s family purchased the 16,000 square foot lot in 1975, it was considered by the town to be a buildable lot. However, in 2008 Falmouth amended its zoning bylaws to include the “no disturbance zones,” prohibiting building within 100 feet of salt marshes and within 50 feet of coastal banks. The “no disturbance zones” restricted the buildable area to a small portion of the lot. These bylaws reduced the buildable area of the lot to just 115 square feet, and when the owner sought variances to build a single-family home in 2012, the town denied the request. The town unsuccessfully argued that it should not be liable for the taking because the owner had not built or attempted to build on the land in 30 years.

John Wall, the attorney for the land owner explained it well in an email to the Cape Code Times, “As an agency that has the power to regulate land, the Conservation Commission wields significant power. Mrs. Smyth’s [owner] case demonstrates that the Commission must exercise that power responsibly and with sensitivity to the rights of property owners. If the Commission deprives a person of all ability to develop their land, the Commission is constitutionally required to pay for the value of the land.”

This case serves as an important example to both landowners and towns of what can happen when a town chooses to use zoning to prevent development instead of compensating a landowner and placing the land in conservation. It will be interesting to watch how municipalities and potentially aggrieved land owners respond to this case.

Read more about the case here: http://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20161212/falmouth-ordered-to-pay-landowner-nearly-1m

This article was written by Justin Davidson, associate counsel for the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS.