READ ABOUT: What does it take to get your municipal matter before a court?
By: Rudman Winchell Attorney Matthew Cobb
As this year’s political campaigns come to a close, it seems quite self-evident that opinions will always vary as to whether governing bodies, be it federal, state, or local, should or should not take a particular course of action. Although national and state political decisions tend to dominate media headlines, local disagreements at the municipal level between residents and their planning boards or code enforcement officers tend to have a greater and more direct impact on the lives of the people involved. On occasion, these disputes end up in court, usually when a citizen or a group of citizens want to challenge a decision or an action taken by their local government. However, as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has explained in recent years, having a strong legal argument to support your view concerning a local decision does not always guarantee that the court will overrule that decision or that you will even be able to present your argument in the first place.
In order to challenge a local decision in court, a party must first show that they have what the Court refers to as “standing”: the right to seek redress through the judicial process. Generally, to establish standing to challenge a local governmental decision, a party must show that they have suffered a “particularized injury or harm” as a result of that decision. In other words, simply disagreeing with a local government’s decision is not enough; a party must show that the decision has adversely affected them in some direct and demonstrable way. Maine’s Supreme Court has explained that a particularized injury usually exists when a local decision or action adversely and directly affects a party’s property, financial interests, or personal rights. For example, local decisions that affect a person’s property rights almost always will confer standing on the property owner to challenge that decision through the legal system. The Court has observed that, generally, “a minor adverse consequence affecting the party’s property . . . is all that is required for the abutting landowner to have standing.” See Roop v. City of Belfast, 2007 ME 32, 915 A.2d 966 Thus, a municipal decision to locate a commercial structure near a resident’s property will generally give that resident standing to challenge that decision in court. Id.
In contrast, the Court has noted that a particularized injury will not always exist simply because a party believes a challenged action affects them in some adverse way. For example, the Court dismissed a legal challenge to a town’s decision to make improvements to its public boat ramp because the individuals who brought the lawsuit did not establish that had suffered a particularized injury as a result of that decision. See Nergaard v. Town of Westport Island, 2009 ME 56, 973 A.2d 735.
The Court explained that although both residents challenging the decision owned property on the island, neither owned property near the boat ramp. Id. The Court also observed that even assuming the two residents would suffer some potential adverse consequence in driving by the upgraded boat ramp, that harm would not be distinct or “particularized” to them because the same potential harm would be incurred by every person who drove by the boat ramp (potentially more than a 1,000 different people according to the opinion).
Whether a resident can demonstrate that they have suffered a “particularized injury” as a result of a local government’s decision is almost never a simple question. Such a determination always depends on the particular circumstances involved. Nor is the inquiry limited to whether a person’s property has been affected; a particularized injury can be found in many other instances. The above cases are merely two examples of one factor courts look to in addressing the complex issue of whether a party has standing.