The many benefits of a court docket for land use cases
In 2019, the state created a Housing Appeals Board to offer a speedier resolution to land use disputes between property owners and local boards. Though the cases that have gone to the board have been resolved quickly, a large backlog of cases remains in Superior Court.
Richard Head, government relations coordinator for the state judicial branch, told the House Judiciary Committee last month that the volume of land use cases in state courts has not noticeably changed since the Housing Appeals Board began operations in 2020. It turns out that there are so many legal challenges to local land use decisions that the state Superior Court has a constant load of between 60-100 cases at any given time, according to the judicial branch.
It can take more than a year for a landowner or developer just to get a court hearing if a local board improperly denies a building permit. It can take up to three years before the courts reach a decision, developers say. That long wait gives local regulatory bodies an upper hand in these disputes.
The legal playing field should not be tilted in favor of government. Private citizens, whether homeowners challenging the rejection of a garage or developers challenging the denial of a commercial project, should have quick and ready access to the court system when they suspect a local board of illegally denying them the use of their property. (Local governments deserve the same if they suspect a developer of violating local ordinances.)
Within the court system, there are two obstacles. One, there aren’t enough Superior Court judges. The judicial branch is 3.5 judges short of being able to keep up with its existing caseload, according to its own presentations to legislators. Two, land use cases tend to be large and highly complex, which slows them down.
New Hampshire has more than 200 unique zoning codes, many of them exceeding 100 pages, according to testimony by state Rep. Ben Ming, D-Hollis, an attorney who practices real estate law.
The judges who hear these cases say the parties would be better served if a single judge could be assigned to hear all land use cases.
“When asked, the judges in our Superior Court described these types of cases as complex,” Head told the House Judiciary Committee in January. The judges “require a great deal of time to get up to speed” when they receive one of these cases.
“And one of the things the judges commented on was if we only see these as part of our regular docket and mixed in and occasionally, it is just a greater lift to get up to speed again and to get refamiliarize yourself not only with the case itself but with the technical aspects of it and the law, which is also, as you’ve heard, very complicated, long, and detailed,” Head said. “So to be able to consolidate these types of cases, the complexity of these cases, into a single docket would just have inherent benefits associated with doing so.”
Head’s explanation came in his testimony in January for House Bill 347, which would create a land use docket in the state Superior Court and fund the hiring of an additional justice to hear those cases. Importantly, the bill covers all local land use regulations, not just housing, so commercial and industrial property would be included. The state has a shortage of industrial buildings too, though it’s not as well known or as severe as the housing shortage.
Creating a land use docket would accomplish five goals:
- Create within the judicial branch a level of expertise on these complex cases that would benefit all parties — the local boards, the property owners, and the justice who handles the cases;
- Reduce the long backlog of land use appeals that delay projects and discourage wronged parties from going to court;
- Create a level of consistency and continuity on complex land use cases that local boards and property owners could use to guide their future decision-making;
- Reduce backlogs of other civil cases, as the complex land use cases go to a newly hired judge;
- Generate economic benefits by reducing the amount of time and money local boards, property owners and developers spend in court, freeing them to spend more time concentrating on their core activities.
Adding a land use docket to the Superior Court, and hiring a justice to handle the cases, will not solve the state’s housing and industrial real estate shortages. Better local land use regulations are the answer. But a separate court docket would greatly improve the dispute resolution process, level the playing field, and have the additional benefit of speeding up court cases in general and reducing the costs for property owners, developers and local governments.