Stern v. Town of Washington Zoning Commission
A private boarding school's athletic fields can qualify as a "school use," even if they are not located on property contiguous to a building used for school purposes. The Gunnery, which is a private boarding school located in Washington, Conn., requested permission from the zoning commission to build athletic fields, a driveway and a parking lot for use in the spring and fall. The zoning commission unanimously approved the special permit after five public hearings. The plaintiff neighbors appealed and argued that one of the commissioners, Ray Reich, wrongly participated in the site visit, the hearing and the discussions of the zoning commission, although he previously worked at The Gunnery and expressed support for additional athletics fields. The court found that Reich clearly disclosed his potential conflict of interest and decided to abstain. The court rejected the plaintiffs' allegations that he possessed a real conflict of interest, that he was biased, that he predetermined the issue, that he wrongly attempted to influence other members of the zoning commission and that his participation created an appearance of impropriety that undermined public confidence in the integrity of the process. The plaintiff neighbors also argued that athletic fields did not qualify as a "school use" pursuant to the zoning regulations, and that component parts of a school cannot be located on separate parcels. The zoning regulations define "school" as something with an educational purpose that has been accredited. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that a "school use" can only be carried out on the grounds of the main campus of the school and that athletic fields must be contiguous to a building. School-sponsored athletics have an important educational purpose. The Gunnery is an accredited educational institution. The proposed athletic fields qualify as a permitted "school use" under the municipality's zoning regulations, and the court dismissed the plaintiffs' appeal.