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S.S. Baker's Realty Co., LLC v. Town of Winchester

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

March 19, 2014

S.S. Baker's Realty Company, LLC
Town of Winchester

Issued the following order:

The petitioner, S.S. Baker's Realty Company, LLC, appeals an order of the superior court affirming a decision of the planning board (board) for the respondent, the Town of Winchester (town), denying approval of the petitioner's site plan application. The petitioner contends that the trial court erred by: (1) finding sufficient evidence to support the planning board's denial based upon concerns about traffic; (2) failing to find the board's other two grounds for denial unsupported by the evidence; (3) finding that the petitioner waived its claim that board members were biased; and (4) upholding the board's decision not to reconsider its vote. We affirm.

The trial court's review of a planning board decision is limited. Ltd. Editions Properties v. Town of Hebron, 162 N.H. 488, 491 (2011). It must treat the board's factual findings as prima facie lawful and reasonable and cannot set aside its decision absent unreasonableness or an identified error of law. Id. The appealing party bears the burden of persuading the trial court that, by the balance of probabilities, the board's decision was unreasonable. Id. Our review is similarly limited. Id. We will uphold the trial court's order unless it is unsupported by the record or legally erroneous, looking to whether a reasonable person could have reached the same decision as did the trial court based upon the same evidence. Prop. Portfolio Group v. Town of Derry, 163 N.H. 754, 757-58 (2012).

We begin by addressing the petitioner's contention that the trial court erred when it found sufficient evidence to support the board's decision. The petitioner argues, first, that the "issuance by NHDOT of the Driveway Permits 'creates a presumption that the proposal protects the public interest, '" which obligated the board "to find 'specific facts' and 'concrete evidence' to rebut the presumption established by the NHDOT Driveway Permits." However, such a presumption does not arise automatically whenever a State permit is issued; it is created, if at all, by the specific language of the town ordinance. Ltd. Editions, 162 N.H. at 494. Compare Derry Senior Dev. v. Town of Derry, 157 N.H. 441, 450 (2008) (finding presumption where ordinance stated "sewage disposal system may be designed and constructed as long as . . . the applicant has secured appropriate permits" from the DES), with Ltd. Editions, 162 N.H. at 495 (finding no presumption where municipal ordinance did not identify State permit as standard for town approval).

Therefore, to determine whether a State permit creates a presumption, we must examine the relevant town ordinance. The interpretation of a zoning ordinance is a question of law, which we review de novo. Town of Barrington v. Townsend, 164 N.H. 241, 246 (2012). Because the traditional rules of statutory construction govern our review, we construe the words and phrases of an ordinance according to their common and approved usage. Id.

In this case, the municipal ordinance states that "access to Class I, II or III streets require[s] conformity with the driveway permit standards of the NH Department of Transportation" and "State regulations apply to driveway access onto State roads." This is not the equivalent of stating that the town will deem the traffic impact of a project to be adequately addressed "as long as" the applicant obtains a driveway permit from the State. Cf. Derry Senior Dev., 157 N.H. at 450. The ordinance merely acknowledges the State's rights to control access to its roads. Although the State has the power to regulate access to State highways, towns may legitimately consider the impact that increased traffic may have upon the safety of an existing or proposed access in determining whether to approve an application. Diversified Prop's v. Hopkinton Planning Bd., 125 N.H. 419, 420 (1984).

The petitioner argues that the ordinance "standards defer to State regulations." However, the ordinance does not cede to the State the board's authority to consider the traffic impact of a proposed project. Thus, the issuance of the State driveway permits did not create a presumption that the project was safe or relieve the planning board of its responsibility to consider the traffic generated by the project and its impact upon public safety. See id.

The petitioner next contends that the trial court erred in finding that the board's decision is supported by the evidence, arguing that

the Board's deliberations show no connection between isolated, conclusory opinions of Board members, and a reasoned discussion or analysis of the Board that led to a consensus that formed the factual underpinnings for the Denial. . . . What the Board "could have" found . . . is irrelevant . . . . [R]ather, the Trial Court must find evidence in the record that the Board "actually did question the credibility or methodology" of the Traffic Impact Study or the NHDOT Driveway Permits based on some specific evidence.

The petitioner, however, overstates the requirements placed on the planning board. RSA 676:4, I(h) (2008) requires that: "In case of disapproval of any application submitted to the planning board, the ground for such disapproval shall be adequately stated upon the records of the planning board." This statutory requirement anticipates an express written record that sufficiently apprises an applicant of the reasons for disapproval and provides an adequate record of the board's reasoning for review on appeal. Ltd. Editions, 162 N.H. at 491. A written denial letter combined with the minutes of a planning board meeting can satisfy the statutory requirement. Id. Ultimately, whether planning board records adequately informed the applicant as to the grounds for disapproval depends upon the particular facts of each case. Id.

In this case, the planning board's written record, coupled with its denial letter, apprised the petitioner of the board's reasons for denial and enabled review on appeal. The letter states that the reasons for denial include "three safety issues: 1) the left hand turn onto Rt.10 south crosses the northbound lane, 2) parking on the shoulder of Rt.10 northbound, and 3) the overflow of traffic from the drive thru window onto Rt.78." Each of these issues had been discussed in the public meetings on the application and is reflected in the board's minutes. Although the petitioner contends that "board members expressed only vague concerns, " the record contains evidence specific to the issues before the board. Cf. Derry Senior Dev., 157 N.H. at 452-53 (finding board's concerns too vague where evidence not directly related to application). Issues concerning the left hand turn were also specifically addressed in the peer review of the petitioner's traffic study, which noted that the study's assessment justified a turning lane and that the proximity of the project's driveways to the intersection could create turning conflicts with properties on the other side of the street. Thus, the board's written decision apprised the petitioner of the reasons for its denial, and those reasons are supported by the record, which is sufficient to allow review.

The petitioner argues that because the board did not explicitly refer to the peer review in its deliberations, "[t]hese unsupported reasons for Denial are exactly the type of 'ad hoc decisions' and 'vague concerns' that make the Board's denial unreasonable." It relies upon Derry Senior Development, 157 N.H. at 451, and Condos East Corp. v. Town of Conway, 132 N.H. 431, 438 (1989). Those cases, however, are inapposite. In Derry Senior Development, the town ordinance created a presumption that sewage disposal systems approved by the State were safe. Derry Senior Dev., 157 N.H. at 450. No such presumption exists here. In Condos East, the board ignored the unanimous opinion of the applicant's and the board's experts, and the record was devoid of evidence supporting the board's decision. Condos East, 132 N.H. at 436, 438. In contrast, the record in this case is not devoid of evidence: it contains conflicting expert testimony, as well as abutters' testimony regarding traffic impacts.

In addition, neither Derry Senior Development nor Condos East supports the petitioner's contention that a board must explicitly refer to evidence in the record for that evidence to support its conclusion. Cf. Prop. Portfolio Group, 163 N.H. at 758-59 (upholding planning board waiver of site plan regulations where board failed to state basis for waiver, but basis apparent in record).

Next, the petitioner argues that the record does not support the board's concerns about traffic safety. We disagree. Abutters testified about traffic problems. The police department submitted a report on accidents at the intersection. The board received conflicting expert testimony about the traffic impact of the proposed project. Thus, the board's concerns were based on more than personal opinion. Cf. Condos East, 132 N.H. at 438 (noting board cannot rely exclusively on personal opinion). Nonetheless, the board members considered their own judgment and experience, as they are entitled to do. See Ltd. Editions, 162 N.H. at 497. As a result, the trial court could have reasonably concluded that the board's denial of the application because ...

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