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Connecticut Supreme Court Clarifies Distinction between Subdivision and Lot Line Revision

Recently, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a land use decision in Cady v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Burlington. In this case, the Supreme Court restated the definition of a subdivision as distinct from a lot line adjustment. The last time that the Connecticut Supreme Court interpreted what constitutes a “subdivision” under Section 8-18 of the Connecticut General Statutes was 1971. Almost 50 years later, this ruling should assist developers, property owners, and town planners to better understand when a subdivision application is appropriate.

In Cady, there was a complex lot line reconfiguration involving three lots. The owner of the three parcels proposed a lot line revision map to the Town of Burlington, moving the boundary lines among the three parcels. Burlington’s Zoning Enforcement Officer determined that the lot lines among the three parcels could be further adjusted to conform to new bulk area requirements and that no new lots were being created, so therefore, it did not constitute a “subdivision”; the Zoning Board of Appeals agreed. On appeal, the lower court reversed the decision. It held that the proposed lots constituted a subdivision rather than a lot line revision. It reasoned that any change, other than a “minor” lot line adjustment (to be discussed), constitutes a subdivision. Further, it stated that the owner’s proposal was subject to the Town of Burlington’s new bulk area requirements.

Upon further appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court (the “Court”) provided three clarifications on when lot line revisions are or are not subdivisions.

No division, no subdivision

Connecticut General Statute Section 8-18 clearly states the two requirements for a subdivision. First, a subdivision is “the division of a tract or parcel of land into three or more parts or lots made subsequent to the adoption of subdivision regulations.” Second, the division is “for the purpose, whether immediate or future, of sale or building development expressly excluding development for municipal, conservation or agricultural purposes…” The Court stated that the statute requires the analysis to start with the tract of land in question from which the initial division occurred. In the present case, no one disputed that three lots existed. The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) had agreed that three lots existed, but it held that the lots were subject to their new bulk area regulations, and since the proposed lots didn’t satisfy the requirements, it denied the application. However, it is clear that the statute requires one lot to be divided into three or more resulting lots to be considered a subdivision. Further, because the lots predated Burlington’s zoning regulations, the Court held that these lots were exempt from the newer bulk area requirements.

Implication. The creation of fewer than three lots is not a subdivision, nor is combining lots—this is well-established. If you propose the creation of three or more lots, start the analysis with the original tract of land from which you propose to subdivide. If the tract was subdivided previously and that action predates subdivision regulations, those regulations don’t apply.

Topography doesn’t matter

In Cady, the state took a portion from two of the three existing lots to widen a state route. The lots became nonconforming with zoning bulk area requirements as a result. The town’s subdivision regulations were passed thereafter. The Court held that the lower court erred when it reviewed the ZBA’s decision. Rather than examine whether the ZBA had substantial evidence to support its finding that three lots existed but were subject to new bulk area requirements, the lower court considered whether the landowner’s proposed lots were of a similar topography as the lots that had previously existed. But, the Court stated clearly “Nothing in the statute requires or suggests that the topography of a lot should be maintained for the purpose of determining whether a subdivision has occurred. The ZBA had determined that there were 3 existing lots that could be reconfigured into three differently shaped, yet still conforming lots. Therefore, the lower court exceeded its authority when it reviewed the topography.”

Implication. The topography of the resulting lots is irrelevant when determining whether a lot line adjustment constitutes a subdivision under the statute. The only appropriate inquiry is whether a lot has been divided into three or more lots.

What is a “minor” lot line revision?

The Court seized the opportunity to clarify the holding of another important ruling on subdivisions on which the parties relied in their arguments. The plaintiff argued that Goodridge v. Zoning Board of Appeals (2000) supports its conclusion that the proposed lot line revision was a subdivision. In Goodridge, the Connecticut Appellate Court held that a minor lot line adjustment between two existing lots does not constitute a subdivision under the statute, and thus does not require municipal approval. The plaintiff argued that both of the following requirements must be met for a lot line adjustment to not constitute a subdivision: First, the adjustment must be minor. Second, no new lot is created. The Court disagreed with this reading of Goodridge, holding that nothing in the statute depends on the degree of the adjustment at all. Indeed, Goodridge did not address a line adjustment or the size of the adjustment. Instead, it considered the division of a lot under the plain reading of the statute that defines “subdivision.” However, in a footnote, the Court states, “Although §8-18 does not address the degree of the lot line adjustment, it is undisputed that, even if a lot line revision does not constitute a subdivision, the resultant lots still must meet minimum lot area requirements.” In this case, it was not disputed that the lots met the minimum requirements under the old town regulations.

Implication. Whether a lot line adjustment is a subdivision does not depend on the degree of the adjustment. Just because a lot line adjustment is something more than “minor” does not automatically qualify it as a subdivision and does not make it subject to municipal subdivision regulations. To be clear, the statute considers only whether a tract of land is divided into three or more parts. However, even if your proposed lots do not meet the definition of a subdivision, you must still meet minimum lot area requirements in effect at the time that the lots were created.

What this means for you

The Court reminds us that the definition of a subdivision is unambiguous. To meet the definition, a single parcel or lot must be divided into three or more parts regardless of topography or degree. If a proposal does not create three or more new parcels, then it is not a “subdivision” under Section 8-18, requiring municipal approval. This ruling will hopefully avoid unnecessary applications to municipal planning departments and land use appeals.

Subdividing property and lot line adjustments are excellent ways for developers and individual residential property owners to create real estate opportunities. If you are interested in exploring these options, start the analysis with the last subdivision of record and the bulk area requirements and subdivision regulations at the time of creation. For property owners and planners alike, the most significant implication of Cady is that the degree of the adjustment does not matter. Just because the resulting lots are a drastically different configuration does not mean that the adjustment requires subdivision review.

For questions about the above topic, or any issue related to Real Estate, please contact the Hinckley Allen attorney with whom you regularly work.

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