Cockerham v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Montville
Given two equally plausible interpretations of the town's zoning regulations and substantial evidence to support the choice made by the Zoning Board of Appeals, it could not be concluded that the trial court erred in giving deference to the board's decision. The plaintiffs, Charles and Willmeta Cockerham, appealed from the trial court's judgment, dismissing their appeal from the decision of Montville's Zoning Board of Appeals. The board's decision upheld the town zoning enforcement officer's approval of an application for a zoning permit filed by the plaintiff's abutting property owner, John Bialowans, Jr., to construct a single family residence. Before Montville adopted zoning regulations and, thereafter, the same couple owned both parties' properties. Neither property conformed to the existing zoning regulations. The plaintiffs claimed, inter alia, that the properties merged for zoning purposes and the court improperly interpreted Montville's zoning regulations. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment. The court's decision was neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law. The zoning enforcement officer properly granted the zoning permit provided that the parcel met the definition of a nonconforming lot. The relevant regulation, §4.13.6, provided that the "a non-conforming lot shall be defined as a lot which was separately owned prior to the enactment of the Zoning Regulations or any amendment thereto…." The Appellate Court found this and another definitional provision equally ambiguous concerning whether the degree of separateness was intended to pertain to the identity of the owner of the properties, as the plaintiffs advocated, or whether the properties had separate legal descriptions and were conveyed by separate deeds, as the board found. The plaintiffs cited Superior Court decisions construing nearly identical language in other towns' regulations in the manner advocated. The zoning enforcement officer testified before the board that in deciding whether a parcel qualified as a nonconforming lot, Montville's zoning enforcement officers, past and present, look to whether the parcel was described separately by deed from any adjoining parcel rather than to who owned the parcel. The board was entitled to credit this uncontested testimony and to reasonably infer the regulation drafter's intent therefrom. The board's findings that the property was a separate nonconforming lot and that the zoning enforcement officer acted legally under the regulations, were supported by substantial evidence and not unreasonable, arbitrary or illegal.