Sunset Manor Association v. Town of Branford
Evidence a property is a different shape than other lots similarly situated can be sufficient to establish "unusual hardship" for purposes of a variance. Brenda and Steven Young own property that is trapezoidal and is bounded by beaches on two sides. To build a new residence, the Youngs sought variances to reduce pre-existing nonconforming setbacks and to enlarge one setback. An ecologist opined that variances would not negatively affect "adjacent coastal resources." The Youngs also included an opinion from an architectural historian. The zoning board of appeals granted the variances. Neighbors appealed, arguing the architect's opinion should not have been admitted without considering its relevance and reliability, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes §4-178(1). The court found that C.G.S. §4-178(1) did not apply, because the zoning board did not qualify as a state board, commission, department or officer, pursuant to C.G.S. §4-166. Even if the statute applied, the plaintiffs failed to establish that the opinion was not pertinent, or that the statute requires a "gatekeeping" inquiry. Neighbors also argued their due-process rights were violated, because the Youngs' attorney did not raise the claim that variances would reduce pre-existing nonconformities early enough for the neighbors to respond. The court rejected the due-process claim, because the Youngs' attorney raised that argument in exhibits, arguments and a memo. Neighbors also argued the board abused its discretion when it granted the Youngs' second application. The court found that the second application incorporated changes as a result of the earlier hearing. The applications were not substantially similar. Substantial evidence of "unusual hardship" existed, because the Youngs' property had a trapezoidal shape that was different than other lots similarly situated. "The board had facts before it," wrote the Superior Court, "from which it reasonably could have determined the existence of unusual circumstances not of the Youngs' making and that hardship existed." There was no evidence that reduction of the setback for the beach would harm public health and safety, or that variances were inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood. The board's decision was not arbitrary, illegal or an abuse of discretion, and the court dismissed the appeal.