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Merriam Farm, Inc. v. Town of Surry

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

September 22, 2015

MERRIAM FARM, INC.
v.
TOWN OF SURRY

Argued: June 24, 2015

Cheshire

Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, P.A., of Manchester (Roy W. Tilsley, Jr. and Michael A. Klass on the brief, and Mr. Tilsley orally), for the petitioner.

Bradley & Faulkner, P.C., of Keene (Gary J. Kinyon on the brief and orally), for the respondent.

CONBOY, J.

The petitioner, Merriam Farm, Inc., appeals a decision of the Superior Court (Kissinger, J.) dismissing its appeal of a decision of the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) of the respondent, Town of Surry (Town), on the basis that the appeal was barred by claim preclusion. We reverse and remand.

The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. The petitioner owns an unimproved parcel of land in Surry with frontage on a Class VI road. The property is approximately 1, 000 feet from a Class V road. Under the Town's zoning ordinance, to build on its property, the petitioner must establish that the property has at least 200 feet of frontage on a public street, which is defined, in pertinent part, as a Class V or better road.

In 2009, the petitioner applied to the Town's selectboard, pursuant to RSA 674:41 (2008), for a building permit to construct a single-family home on the property. The selectboard denied the application because the property lacked frontage on a Class V or better road. See RSA 674:41, I. The petitioner appealed to the ZBA, and the ZBA denied relief. Subsequent appeals by the petitioner to the trial court and to this court were also unsuccessful. See Merriam Farm, Inc. v. Town of Surry, No. 2011-0311 (N.H. Sept. 12, 2012).

In 2013, the petitioner applied to the ZBA for a variance from the frontage requirement in the Town's zoning ordinance in order to build a single-family residence on the property. See RSA 674:33, I(b) (Supp. 2014). The ZBA denied the application. After unsuccessfully moving for rehearing, the petitioner appealed to the trial court.

The Town asserted, among other arguments, that the petitioner's application for a variance was barred by the doctrines of claim preclusion and preemption. The petitioner argued, among other things, that the Town waived its claim preclusion argument and that the ZBA improperly applied the statutory criteria governing variances under RSA 674:33, I(b).

Following a hearing, the trial court issued an order in which it determined that the Town did not waive its claim preclusion argument. The court then decided that the petitioner's previously unsuccessful application for a building permit under RSA 674:41 precluded the ZBA from considering the petitioner's variance application. This appeal followed.

Judicial review in zoning cases is limited. Brandt Dev. Co. of N.H. v. City of Somersworth, 162 N.H. 553, 555 (2011). Factual findings of the ZBA are deemed prima facie lawful and reasonable, and the ZBA's decision will not be set aside by the superior court absent errors of law unless it is persuaded by the balance of probabilities, on the evidence before it, that the ZBA decision is unlawful or unreasonable. RSA 677:6 (2008); Brandt Dev. Co. of N.H., 162 N.H. at 555. We will uphold the superior court's decision unless the evidence does not support it or it is legally erroneous. Brandt Dev. Co. of N.H., 162 N.H. at 555. The interpretation and application of a statute or ordinance is a question of law, and we review the trial court's ruling on such issues de novo. Id.

The petitioner first argues that the Town waived its right to raise the issue of claim preclusion because it failed to raise the issue in a motion for rehearing before the ZBA. See RSA 677:3, I (2008). The petitioner also argues that, "[e]ven if the Town did not waive its right to raise the issue of preclusion, the [p]etitioner's application for a variance . . . is not precluded by its prior application for relief filed under RSA 67[4]:41." Because we agree that claim preclusion does not bar the petitioner's variance application, we need not address whether the Town waived its right to raise the claim preclusion issue.

To determine whether the doctrine of claim preclusion, otherwise known as res judicata, applies here, we employ the familiar three-part test. See In re Estate of Bergquist, 166 N.H. 531, 535 (2014); Gray v. Kelly, 161 N.H. 160, 164 (2010). This doctrine prevents parties from relitigating matters actually litigated and matters that could have been litigated in the first action, and it applies if three elements are met: "(1) the parties are the same or in privity with one another; (2) the same cause of action was before the court in both instances; and (3) the first action ended with a final judgment on the merits." Bergqu ...


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