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Stones Trail, LLC v. Town of Weston

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 18, 2017

STONES TRAIL, LLC
v.
TOWN OF WESTON

          Argued March 13, 2017

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, Hon. Taggart D. Adams, judge trial referee [motion to dismiss]; Hon. Edward R. Karazin, Jr., judge trial referee, [motions to dismiss]; Lee, J.

          Robert A. Fuller, with whom was Paul J. Pacifico, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Thomas R. Gerarde, with whom was Patricia C. Sullivan, for the appellee (defendant).

          Sheldon, Mullins and Harper, Js.

         Syllabus

         The plaintiff developer brought an action seeking to recover damages from the defendant town as a result of its alleged inverse condemnation or regulatory taking of certain of the plaintiff's real property. The plaintiff also alleged various violations of its federal constitutional rights. The plaintiff had purchased the property with the purpose of dividing it into six build able lots. Before the closing of the purchase, the plaintiff submitted three maps of the property to the town. The town's attorney determined that the property depicted on one of the maps was not a subdivision, and that map was stamped accordingly and filed in the town land records. Thereafter, the other two maps, which altered the lot lines of the property to depict six potentially develop able lots, were stamped with the identical language and filed in the land records. The plaintiff completed the purchase of the property, in reliance on the review of the lots by town officials and the stamped notation. The plaintiff did not seek or obtain approval from the town's Planning and Zoning Commission for the subdivision of the lots, believing that such approval was not necessary because the town's prior procedure had been to place the same stamped language on maps when it was determined that subdivision approval was not needed. Thereafter, the plaintiff was informed by several town officials that it had to seek subdivision approval from the commission prior to subdividing the properties. The town's attorneys rejected the plaintiff's requests to reconsider that determination and urged the plaintiff to apply to the commission for subdivision approval. The town's zoning enforcement officer also denied the plaintiff's request for a certificate of zoning compliance, which was upheld by the town's Zoning Board of Appeals. Prior to trial, the town filed four motions to dismiss the plaintiff's action on the ground that its claims were not ripe and that the court therefore lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Those motions were denied. The jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff's favor on its constitutional claims, after which the trial court, sua sponte, set aside the verdict and dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In dismissing the action, the court relied on facts that were developed throughout the proceedings and at trial in determining that the plaintiff's claims were not ripe because the plaintiff had failed to obtain a final decision from the commission on its subdivision proposal. The court issued a revised memorandum of decision in which it deleted the references to the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies that had been included in the initial memorandum of decision. The court determined that those references were dicta and removed them to avoid ambiguity or confusion as to the basis of its initial decision. On appeal, the plaintiff claimed, inter alia, that the principle of finality of judgments superseded the reconsideration of the town's claims of lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and that the trial court was precluded by the law of the case doctrine from reconsidering the four pretrial rulings that rejected the town's ripeness claims.

         Held:

1. The principle of the finality of judgments did not bar the trial court from reconsidering the ripeness of the plaintiff's claims and whether it had subject matter jurisdiction over those claims, as the court's reconsideration of its jurisdiction was not a collateral attack on a judgment rendered in another proceeding, reconsideration was necessary on the basis of facts that were developed at trial and were unknown to the court when it previously considered the issue of ripeness, and reconsideration was important so as to prevent a miscarriage of justice to ensure that the court had jurisdiction under the circumstances here, in which the plaintiff did not comply with the town's zoning regulations, but, rather, sought to circumvent those procedures.
2. Contrary to the plaintiff's claim, the law of the case doctrine did not bar the trial court from revisiting the issue of ripeness and, thus, its jurisdiction; although the issue of ripeness had been considered four times previously, the law of the case doctrine does not mandate that a court adhere to all rulings made at prior stages in the proceedings, and the trial court here explained that it reconsidered the issue of ripeness on the basis of facts that were developed at trial.
3. The trial court properly determined that although the plaintiff had vested rights in the property at issue, it did not have vested rights in the configuration of the property as it sought to reconfigure it, nor could it have acquired such vested rights without having sought approval of its reconfiguration in accordance with the town's established protocol and procedures; the zoning enforcement officer's denial of the plaintiff's application for a certificate of zoning compliance was a conditional decision that did not vest the plaintiff with rights to the property at issue, the zoning officer having refused to issue the certificate before the plaintiff presented its application to and received subdivision approval from the town's commission, and having merely referred the initial determination of the subdivision issue and the validity of the property lots to the administrative body charged with deciding those issues.
4. The plaintiff's claim that the trial court improperly relied on a prior decision of this court in ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction was unavailing; the trial court's jurisdictional inquiry was based on the factual record developed throughout the proceedings up until the jury's verdict, and it was clear that in assessing whether it had subject matter jurisdiction, the court considered factual differences between the claims here and in the prior decision of this court.
5. The plaintiff could not prevail on its claim that the trial court improperly rejected its assertion that it would have been futile to apply to the commission for subdivision approval and, thus, that it should have been excused from having to do so; the plaintiff's obstacles to obtaining subdivision approval were self-imposed, as the plaintiff had been directed by every town representative with whom it spoke about the matter to seek approval from the commission, but never did so, and the plaintiff's principal testified that he did not seek subdivision approval because it was a time-consuming and expensive process, and because his attorney told him that it might impair the collateral to his mortgage loan or be viewed as an admission that the lot line adjustments were invalid.
6. Notwithstanding the plaintiff's claims to the contrary, the trial court's ripeness review applied to the plaintiff's claims of alleged violations of its constitutional rights, as those constitutional claims were inextricably intertwined with the plaintiff's takings and inverse condemnation claims, the allegations in the complaint underlying the takings and inverse condemnation claims having mirrored those set forth in the constitutional claims.
7. The plaintiff could not prevail on its claim that the trial court materially altered its decision when it filed a revised memorandum of decision that omitted references in the original decision to the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine; the court's original decision mentioned that doctrine only in passing and without discussion of how it would apply to the present case, that doctrine did not form the basis of the court's decision, and the lack of any reference to that doctrine in the revised memorandum of decision served to dispel any ambiguity or confusion concerning the basis of the court's original decision.

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for, inter alia, the alleged violation of certain of the plaintiff's constitutional rights, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, where the court, Karazin, J., denied the defendant's motion to dismiss; thereafter, the court, Hon. Taggart D. Adams, judge trial referee, denied the defendant's motion to dismiss; subsequently, the court, Hon. Edward R. Karazin, Jr., judge trial referee, denied the defendant's motions to dismiss; thereafter, the matter was tried to the jury before Lee, J.; verdict for the plaintiff; subsequently, the court, Lee, J., denied the defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict; thereafter, the court, Lee, J., set aside the verdict and dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the plaintiff appealed to this court; subsequently, the court, Lee, J., issued an articulation of its decision. Affirmed.

          OPINION

          SHELDON, J.

         The plaintiff, Stones Trail, LLC, brought this action against the defendant, the town of Weston (town), arising from its attempts to develop certain real property located in Weston, alleging, inter alia, denial of equal protection of the law in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; denial of procedural due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; inverse condemnation or regulatory taking of land in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and inverse condemnation or regulatory taking of land in violation of the fifth amendment to the United States constitution[1] and article first, § 11, of the state constitution.[2] The plaintiff appeals from the trial court's dismissal of its claims on the basis of its determination that the lack of a final decision from the town's Planning and Zoning Commission (commission) rendered them unripe for adjudication. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.[3]

         The trial court set forth the following relevant facts and procedural history. ‘‘[Robert] Walpuck, [doing business as the plaintiff], Stones Trail, LLC, entered into a contract to purchase the property on Ladder Hill Road in Weston . . . (the property) on March 18, 1998. The property was composed of four smaller lots varying from one to two acres in size and one large lot (the Great Gate lot), with the total property aggregating about seventeen acres. The property was located in a two acre zone. Prior to closing the purchase, [the plaintiff] commissioned a title report, which was forwarded to the town. [The plaintiff] submitted three maps of the property to the town. Map #3447 depicted the property as it had appeared since 1937, consisting of four small lots and one large lot. On September 18, 1998, Town Attorney Christopher Jarboe wrote to the code enforcement officer that the property depicted on map #3447 was not a subdivision and should be stamped accordingly and filed on the land records. On the same day, the town engineer and [the] town code enforcement officer stamped and signed map #3447 with a stamp reading as follows: ‘The Town Engineer and Code Enforcement Office hereby attest to the fact that this plan is neither a subdivision nor a resubdivision as defined by the General Statutes of Connecticut and the Town of Weston and may be recorded without prior approval of the Weston Planning and Zoning Commission.' Approximately a week later, on September 24, 1998, map #3448, which altered the property in that the Great Gate lot on map #3447 was divided into two, yielding a total of six lots, was filed and stamped with the same language. Map #3449 was also filed and stamped with the same language on September 24, 1998. Map #3449 substantially altered the lots so that the four smaller lots each slightly exceeded two acres, giving the developer six potentially develop able lots. Map #3448 and map #3449 were not stamped and filed on the Weston Land Records until roughly a week after the date of . . . Jarboe's letter. . . .

         ‘‘Walpuck testified that he felt he did not need subdivision approval and that he could achieve his objective of six build able lots by lot line adjustments. According to . . . Walpuck, the procedure in Weston since 1991 was to place the aforementioned stamped language on a map when it was determined that no subdivision approval was needed. This procedure apparently was recommended by Town Counsel Harry Hefferanin1991, who wrote, ‘[i]n the event a map is requested to be filed without subdivision or resubdivision action by the Planning and Zoning Commission acting in its planning function, the same shall be presented by its proposed filer to the town engineer and to the code enforcement officer for their examination. If those officers determine that it is unnecessary to appear before the Planning and Zoning Commission because there is no subdivision or resubdivision as so defined, they shall so indicate on the face of the map and the town clerk may accept for filing such map.'

         ‘‘Walpuck testified that, in reliance on the review of the lots by town officials and the stamped notation on map #3449, in October, 1998, the plaintiff completed the purchase of the property, having obtained a $1.1 million mortgage from Ridgefield Bank. The mortgage agreement included a provision allowing for the severance or release of individual lots upon payment of an allocated amount. . . .

         ‘‘Subsequently, on February 14, 2000, special counsel for the commission, Attorney Barry Hawkins, advised the plaintiff's attorney by letter that he had ‘determined that under applicable Connecticut law and the Weston Planning and Zoning Regulations and Subdivision By Laws . . . Walpuck must seek subdivision approval from the Weston Planning and Zoning Commission prior to dividing his properties situated at 10 Ladder Hill Road and 96 Georgetown Road in Weston . . . .' Hawkins explained that the plaintiff's ‘extensive and aggressive lot line adjustments' appeared to be an attempt to ‘circumvent compliance with [the town's] Subdivision By-Laws.' Hawkins also notified the plaintiff that he had advised the town's zoning enforcement and building officials not to issue zoning or building permits to the plaintiff, should it attempt to develop the lots. Hawkins advised the plaintiff that it should apply to the commission for subdivision approval, and that ‘[t]he Planning and Zoning Commission is willing to work with . . . Walpuck to accomplish reasonably the safe and proper development of his properties in accordance with applicable subdivision statutes and regulations.'

         ‘‘On March 22, 2000, Hawkins wrote to the town's tax assessor, advising that the lot line adjustments reflected onthe recorded maps did not create additional building lots, and that, therefore, the plaintiff's property should be taxed as one parcel of land. In May, 2000, the tax assessor revised the tax assessment map so that the plaintiff's property was taxed as a single lot. This did not affect the existing lot lines, however.

         ‘‘In 2002, [the plaintiff] was in default on its mortgage. The bank threatened foreclosure, and . . . Walpuck sought permission to sell one of the reconfigured lots to generate cash to cure the default. However, the Ridgefield Bank refused to release any of the six lots from the plaintiff's mortgage because of, among other things, uncertainty about the legitimacy of the six lot configuration shown on map #3449. Subsequently, the bank commenced a mortgage foreclosure action against the plaintiff in February, 2002.

         ‘‘Upon receiving Hawkins' letter, the plaintiff did not seek subdivision approval from the commission or appeal the position of the letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Instead, in 2004 and 2005, the plaintiff made requests to town attorneys Kenneth Bernhard and Patricia C. Sullivan to reconsider the town's position, based on the plaintiff's contention that the parcels did not constitute a subdivision under General Statutes § 8-18. The town attorneys rejected these requests and urged [the] plaintiff to apply for subdivision approval. Instead, [the] plaintiff commenced the present action in [November], 2005. . . . Walpuck testified that he did not apply for subdivision approval because it was a time-consuming and expensive process, and because his lawyer told him that it might impair the collateral to his loan, or, ‘since it could be viewed' as a possible admission that the lot line adjustments were invalid.

         ‘‘In April, 2006, subsequent to the commencement of this action, the plaintiff filed an informal, handwritten application with town Zoning Enforcement Officer Robert Turner for a certificate of zoning compliance for parcel D on map #3449. Turner denied the application, noting that he lacked authority to grant a certificate of zoning compliance for anything other than the smaller, preexisting lot called the ‘Honor Leeming Lot' on an older map of the property in its previous, non conforming configuration. Turner further stated that the proposed lot line arrangements shown on map #3449 ‘would have to be reviewed before permission can be given.' Turner continued, ‘[a]s has been explained to you on a number of prior occasions, the way ...


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