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Lake Forest R. V. Resort, Inc. v. Town of Wakefield

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

August 23, 2016

LAKE FOREST R. V. RESORT, INC.
v.
TOWN OF WAKEFIELD & a.

          Argued: February 10, 2016

         Carroll

          Cooper Cargill Chant, P.A., of North Conway (Christopher T. Meier on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

          Sager & Haskell, PLLC, of Ossipee (Richard D. Sager on the brief and orally), for the defendants.

          CONBOY, J.

         The plaintiff, Lake Forest R.V. Resort, Inc., appeals from an order of the Superior Court (Houran, J.) ruling that RSA chapter 216-I (2011 & Supp. 2015), entitled "Recreational Campgrounds and Camping Parks, " applies in this case. The plaintiff also appeals from an order of the Superior Court (Garfunkel, J.) ruling in favor of the defendants, Town of Wakefield and Town of Wakefield Planning Board (planning board), regarding a procedural due process claim involving town counsel. We reverse in part and remand.

         The following facts are drawn from the trial court's orders, or are otherwise found in the record. The plaintiff owns a 105-acre tract of land in Wakefield. Approximately 68 acres of the tract are used for recreational vehicle campsites. In 1994, the plaintiff obtained approval from the planning board to build 16 seasonal cabins on the remaining 37 acres of the tract. Each approved cabin was to be built on two acres.

         A question later arose as to the permissible size of each of the cabins. In 2001, the planning board decided that each cabin could be 600 square feet. The plaintiff then began creating the cabin development and as of 2007 it had constructed four cabins.

         In 2007, the plaintiff consulted with the planning board about increasing the size of the remaining 12 cabins to approximately 850 square feet. By letter from the town planner, the plaintiff's request was denied and, despite the previous approval of 600 square feet per cabin, the permissible size of each of the plaintiff's remaining cabins was reduced to a maximum of 400 square feet. The matter was litigated and the Trial Court (Brown, J.) ordered that, because the plaintiff had relied upon the planning board's prior approval in creating the cabin development, the plaintiff is allowed to construct 600-square-foot cabins.

         In April 2011, the plaintiff sought permission from the planning board to increase the size of the remaining 12 cabins to approximately 850 square feet. In May, the planning board held a hearing on the plaintiff's request. The plaintiff's representative, David Mankus, set forth the plaintiff's arguments as to why the planning board should grant the plaintiff's request. Attorney Richard Sager also attended the hearing and argued against the plaintiff's request. At one point, Sager stated that he was "town counsel, " but he did not specify whether he was representing the planning board or some other town entity.

         During the hearing, the planning board considered the effect of RSA 216-I:1, VII-a (2011), which defines "'[r]ecreational camping cabin, '" in pertinent part, as "a structure on a campsite, 400 square feet or less." As the hearing progressed, Mankus requested a continuance, which the planning board denied. At the conclusion of the hearing, the planning board denied the plaintiff's request to increase the size of the remaining cabins. In a written decision, the planning board explained that it denied the plaintiff's request for the additional square footage because "[t]he court order of the prior lawsuit approved 600 square feet and not the 850 square feet being requested at this time as well as the jeopardy to the Code Enforcement Officer if he has to deny the Building Permits for the 850 square feet."

         The plaintiff appealed the planning board's decision to the superior court. Although the plaintiff has failed to provide us with a copy of the complaint, it appears from the record that the plaintiff appealed the planning board's apparent reliance upon the statutory definition of "recreational camping cabin." The record also indicates that the plaintiff claimed that its federal and state constitutional rights to procedural due process were violated at the May 2011 planning board hearing because the board denied a continuance and there may have been confusion about which town entity Sager represented at the hearing and some planning board members may have thought he represented the planning board. See U.S. CONST. amends. V, XIV; N.H. CONST. pt. I, art. 15. The record further indicates that the plaintiff claimed violation of its substantive due process and equal protection rights.

         In January 2013, the Trial Court (Houran, J.) issued an order finding that the planning board "based its denial on its belief that [the plaintiff's] proposed cabins fall under RSA chapter 216-I, specifically, RSA 216-I:1, VII-a, which limits certain cabins to a maximum size of 400 square feet." The court then ruled that: (1) RSA chapter 216-I applies in this case; (2) to comport with RSA 216-I:1, VII-a, the plaintiff's "cabins must be less than 400 square feet"; and (3) the planning board has the "authority to ensure compliance with RSA chapter 216-I." Subsequently, in March 2014, the Trial Court (Garfunkel, J.) ruled that any possible confusion about which town entity Sager represented at the May 2011 planning board hearing did not support the plaintiff's procedural due process claim. The court then held a four-day bench trial on the plaintiff's remaining claims. At the close of the plaintiff's case, the defendants moved for a directed verdict on all of the claims. The plaintiff objected. In March 2015, the court granted the defendants' motion. This appeal followed.

         On appeal, the plaintiff argues that: (1) nothing in the language of RSA chapter 216-I precludes it from constructing "890 square foot" cabins; (2) the planning board lacks the authority to enforce compliance with RSA chapter 216-I; and (3) its rights to procedural due process were violated by confusion about which town entity Sager represented at the May 2011 planning board hearing.

         We begin by addressing the plaintiff's argument that nothing in the plain language of RSA chapter 216-I precludes it from constructing "890 square foot" cabins. The plaintiff further contends that, even if the language of RSA chapter 216-I is ambiguous, the legislative history of the chapter supports its argument. Although the defendants acknowledge that the plaintiff has a vested right to build 600-square-foot cabins, they argue that: (1) the plaintiff's cabins are "recreational camping cabins" as defined in RSA 216-I:1, VII-a, and that because the statute limits the size of such cabins to 400 square feet, the planning board is precluded from approving the plaintiff's request to increase the size of the remaining ...


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