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