Totality of the Circumstances Determines the Purpose of Town-Owned Land

By Sean Regan

In Carroll v. Select Board of Norwell (SJC 13410), several residents of Norwell attempted to compel the town’s select board to transfer municipal land, which was previously designated for affordable housing, to the town’s conservation commission. The controversy centered around a roughly 40-acre parcel dubbed “Wildcat Land” owned by the town of Norwell. In 2004, a town meeting vote expressed interest in developing affordable housing on the site, though no concrete plans materialized. Years later, a different group of residents advocated for transferring the land to the conservation commission due to its ecological value.


Under G. L. c. 40, § 15A, when town-owned land is “held . . . for a specific purpose,” that land cannot be used for a different or inconsistent use until the “board or officer having charge of [the] land” determines, through official procedures, that the land is no longer needed for that designated purpose.


The plaintiff residents argued that Wildcat Land was NOT truly “designated” for affordable housing due to the lack of actual development plans. They believed the 2004 vote merely expressed a general sentiment, not a binding commitment. They further contended that the land’s environmental significance outweighed any potential housing benefits.


The defendant select board countered that the vote, coupled with subsequent efforts to explore housing options, effectively established Wildcat Land for a “specific purpose” under G.L. c. 40, § 15A. They argued that diverting the land to conservation without first formally declaring it as no longer needed for affordable housing would violate this legal requirement.


A Land Court judge granted the board’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the municipal land had been designated for a specific purpose — the development of affordable housing — and therefore, pursuant to G. L. c. 40, § 15A, the parcels could not be transferred without a determination by the board that the land was no longer needed for this purpose. The issue on appeal was whether the totality of the circumstances test articulated in Smith v. Westfield, 478 Mass. 49, 63-64 (2017), applied to the determination of whether land is “held by a city or town . . . for a specific purpose” under G. L. c. 40, § 15A.


Ultimately, the Supreme Judicial Court sided with the select board, emphasizing the importance of adhering to the procedures outlined in G.L. c. 40, § 15A, even in the absence of concrete development plans.  In other words, the SJC answered the question on appeal affirmatively and concluded that town-owned land is held for a specific municipal purpose under G. L. c. 40, § 15A, where the totality of the circumstances indicates a clear and unequivocal intent by the town to hold the land for such purpose, even without concrete development plans, as was the case here.

For a copy of the Decision [click here].


Written by

Sean Regan

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