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Beckford v. Town of Clifton

Supreme Court of Maine

December 31, 2014

PETER BECKFORD et al.
v.
TOWN OF CLIFTON et al.

Submitted On Briefs: October 27, 2014

Business and Consumer Docket docket number AP-2012-10

William B. Devoe, Esq., and Jonathan A. Pottle, Esq., Eaton Peabody, Bangor, for appellant and cross-appellee Pisgah Mountain, LLC

Peter Beckford and Julie Beckford, appellees and cross-appellants pro se

Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, SILVER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and HJELM, JJ. Majority: SAUFLEY, C.J., and MEAD, GORMAN, and HJELM, JJ. Concurrence: SAUFLEY, C.J. Dissent: SILVER and JABAR, JJ. Dissent: ALEXANDER, J.

HJELM, J.

[¶1] Pisgah Mountain, LLC, appeals from a judgment of the Business and Consumer Docket (Portland, Horton, J.) vacating a decision of the Town of Clifton Planning Board that granted Pisgah a permit to construct and operate a wind energy project. After the Town's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) affirmed the Planning Board's decision, the matter was appealed to the Superior Court by Peter and Julie Beckford, who own land adjacent to the proposed development site. Because the Beckfords did not file their appeal with the Superior Court within the time required by M.R. Civ. P. 80B(b) and 30-A M.R.S. § 2691 (2014), the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter. Consequently, we vacate the judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

[¶2] In late 2010, Pisgah applied to the Town of Clifton Planning Board for site plan approval to build and operate a five-turbine commercial wind energy project. The Planning Board held a series of public meetings and workshops about the application throughout the spring and summer of 2011. At several of the public meetings, the Beckfords voiced their opposition to the project, contending that Pisgah had not met the requirements of the Town of Clifton Land Use Ordinance.

[¶3] In October 2011, the Planning Board voted to approve Pisgah's application and issued specific findings regarding the project's compliance with all applicable provisions of the Ordinance. The Beckfords timely appealed the Planning Board decision to the ZBA, and, after conducting a public hearing on the appeal, the ZBA remanded the matter to the Planning Board for further findings of fact. On January 25, 2012, following remand, the ZBA held another hearing on the application, where it considered the Beckfords' arguments and the Planning Board's further findings. At that hearing, the ZBA voted to adopt the Planning Board's findings of fact and to reject each of the specific challenges that the Beckfords raised on appeal to the ZBA. The ZBA then voted separately to deny the appeal "in its entirety." Following these votes, the ZBA decided that it would meet again on January 30 "for the Final Decision."

[¶4] When it reconvened on January 30, 2012, the ZBA approved the minutes of the January 25 meeting, which memorialized the votes noted above. The ZBA also voted "to accept the presented copy, as written, of the Notice of Final Decision made by the Appeals Board on the appeal from Julie and Peter Beckford." The ZBA's members each signed the written decision and findings of fact, which concluded, "the Board denies their appeal."

[¶5] On March 15, 2012, the Beckfords filed a complaint pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80B in Superior Court (Penobscot County).[1] Pisgah and the Town moved to dismiss the Beckfords' complaint on the ground that it was filed outside of the forty-five-day appeal period established in 30-A M.R.S. § 2691(3)(G) (2014). The court (Anderson, J.) denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that the statutory appeal period started on January 30 when the ZBA issued its written findings and decision, not on January 25 when it voted to deny the appeal.

[¶6] In May 2013, the court (Horton, J.) issued a decision remanding the case to the Planning Board for further findings of fact but retaining jurisdiction. After considering the additional findings of the Planning Board, the court entered a judgment on December 11, 2013, vacating the Board's decision to approve the permit on the ground that the Town misapplied the requirements of the Land Use Ordinance. The Town and Pisgah timely filed an appeal of that decision pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80B(n) and M.R. App. P. 2, and the Beckfords cross-appealed.

II. DISCUSSION

[¶7] In addition to its arguments on the merits, Pisgah contends that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction over the Beckfords' appeal. Pisgah argues that the Beckfords' Rule 80B appeal was untimely because the appeal period began with the ZBA's January 25 vote. The Beckfords contend that the ZBA's operative vote was on January 30 when it issued its written findings and that therefore their appeal was timely.

[¶8] The procedural mechanism governing the Beckfords' appeal from the ZBA's decision is M.R. Civ. P. 80B, which provides that "[t]he time within which review may be sought shall be as provided by statute . . . ." M.R. Civ. P. 80B(b).[2]The applicable statute in this case is 30-A M.R.S. § 2691, which governs municipal boards of appeals.[3] That statute provides: "Any party may take an appeal within 45 days of the date of the vote on the original decision . . . ." 30-A M.R.S. § 2691(3)(G). The Beckfords filed their appeal forty-five days after the ZBA issued its written findings and decision on January 30, but fifty days after the ZBA voted to deny the appeal. Thus, the timeliness of the appeal hinges on whether the ZBA's "vote on the original decision" occurred on January 25 or January 30.[4] If the appeal to the Superior Court was filed after the statutory deadline, then the court did not have jurisdiction to consider its merits. See Davric Maine Corp. v. Bangor Historic Track, Inc., 2000 ME 102, ¶ 11, 751 A.2d 1024 (stating that "[s]tatutory limitations on appeal periods are jurisdictional").

[¶9] In order to determine whether the Superior Court had jurisdiction over the Beckfords' appeal, we must answer two fundamental questions. First, does a vote by a board of appeals only trigger the appeal period for purposes of section 2691 once a written decision with findings of fact is issued? Second, regardless of when the written decision was issued, did the operative "vote" in this case occur on January 25 or on January 30? To answer these questions, we must construe section 2691, which we do de novo. See Carrier v. Secretary of State, 2012 ME 142, ¶ 12, 60 A.3d 1241. "We first look to the plain meaning of the statute, " and "look ...


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