(analysis prepared by for supporters of waterline extension by Audrey Thier


Previous Massachusetts court decisions demonstrate that zoning challenges are difficult to win and also that a change in infrastructure, such as the installation of a water line, would not negate otherwise valid zoning, for the following reasons:


First: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has clearly stated that a person challenging zoning “must prove by a preponderance of evidence that the zoning regulation is arbitrary and unreasonable, or substantially unrelated to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare." (Johnson v. Town of Edgartown, SJC 1997). In the most recent relevant decision, this past August, the SJC further elaborated on this point by stating: “We make every presumption in favor of a zoning bylaw, and we measure its constitutional validity against any permissible public objective that the legislative body may plausibly be said to have been pursuing.” (Zuckerman v. Town of Hadley. SJC, 2004).  The same decision goes on to state: “If its reasonableness is fairly debatable, [a zoning bylaw] will be sustained."


Second: Several cases have established that zoning requirements setting relatively large minimum lot size can be used to achieve legitimate goals provided such zoning is rationally and specifically related to those goals. The 2004 Zuckerman ruling states this broadly. It plainly endorses the principle of zoning for the purpose of growth management, and the use of large-lot, wide frontage, and cluster zoning in particular, in the following statement and note:


We recognize the enormous pressures faced by rural and suburban towns [*14] presented with demands of development, and that towns may seek to prevent or to curtail the visual blight and communal degradation that growth unencumbered by guidance or restraint may occasion….Like all such towns, Hadley may, in an effort to preserve its character and natural resources, adopt any combination of zoning bylaws, (n14) and participate in a wide variety of State-enacted programs, (n15) that may, as a practical matter, limit growth by physically limiting the amount of land available for development.


(n14) Within reason, such bylaws might include, for example, either large-lot or cluster zoning, expanded frontage requirements, the development of exclusive agricultural use districts, or any other measure permitted by statute.

                                                (Zuckerman v. Town of Hadley. SJC, 2004)


More specifically, the courts have upheld large-lot zoning when the municipality has demonstrated valid reasons requiring it.   For example, Johnson v. Town of Edgartown (SJC, 1997) found that 3-acre zoning would not necessarily be upheld if the justification for it was based only on generalities, or solely for the preservation of open space or protecting plant and wildlife, without a particular demonstration of why that open space or wildlife was important. But it ruled that such lots were indeed legitimate in Edgartown for two reasons: the fragile ecology of the site and, more importantly for Williamstown's situation:


…[B]y the need to protect the amenities and character of a rural resort, such as the Vineyard, in order to assist its economic stability, including its shellfish industry and tourism....the quality of the Vineyard's landscape is important to the quality of life and the promotion of tourism.

(Johnson v. Town of Edgartown, SJC, 1997). 


Further, the court upheld Edgartown’s 3-acre zoning even though it was agreed by all parties to the case that only 2-acre lots were required to ensure “safe, on-site” drinking water on a site with a septic system. In other words, lots that exceeded those required to meet water needs were upheld based on other rationales. Drinking water was not the limiting or deciding factor.


Other cases where large lots were upheld include Wilson v. Sherborn, where a Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that 2-acre zoning was justified on the basis of the sewer and water conditions of the zone (Wilson v. Sherborn, 3rd Massachusetts Appeals Court. 1975).


In contrast, one older case, Aronson v. Sharon (SJC, 1964), which has been cited in the current debate as demonstrating that large-lot zoning would be thrown out if public water became available, does not support such a conclusion. The Town of Sharon’s zoning in its “Single Residence District Rural” was indeed thrown out by the court, but the decision did not once mention water availability as a factor in its findings.


Williamstown’s rationale for large-lot zoning in the Route 7 corridor has never relied solely on lack of infrastructure (though limited water and septic capacity have been used as a backup limitation).  The Route 7 corridor has been identified in several iterations of our Town Master plan and other documents, over nearly 2 decades, as being one the community would like to preserve for its rural character, its agriculture, and its spectacular mountain views, which are essential to our tourist economy. Further, Williamstown has also stated a strong preference for development to occur in the center of town, in order to preserve the split between village center and rural, agricultural surroundings, and the community has identified in-town areas that remain for affordable and other primary housing development (and in the case of the Carol Cable building, for example, fostered them). The courts have repeatedly instructed towns to do exactly this kind of planning to rationally design and justify their zoning.


Conclusion: There are no guarantees when cases are brought to court, but if a challenge to 2 1/2 acre zoning were to occur, it is not likely that the presence or absence of a water line in the vicinity would significantly affect the outcome of that challenge, given the Town's numerous reasons for preserving the area, stated in the public record over many years and reflected in the zoning adopted at Town meeting, and given the SJC's clearly stated presumption in favor of zoning based on rational, specific public benefits.