NELF, with National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) as co-amicus, filed a brief in this case supporting a real estate developer’s argument that suits brought to challenge the adequacy of a final environmental impact report must be brought within thirty days of the first issuance of a permit. The case was accepted by the SJC for direct appellate review after Canton appealed a Superior Court decision dismissing its complaint against a developer whose project in a neighboring town would affect traffic volume in Canton. The case stems from the Massachusetts statute that requires developers to complete an environmental impact report before commencing work on the project. A related statute provides that the adequacy of the report may be challenged by a lawsuit brought within thirty days of the first issuance of a permit for the project. In this case, because its only complaint about the report concerned the development’s likely impact on traffic patterns in the town, Canton did not bring suit until many months after the first permits had been issued since those permits did not concern traffic. The developer successfully moved to dismiss Canton’s complaint as untimely.
The question before the Supreme Judicial Court was whether, when a party wishes to commence an action challenging the adequacy of an environmental impact report, the time within which the party can bring an action commences to run upon the issuance of the first permit, whatever its subject matter, or upon issuance of the first permit that pertains to the party’s concerns. Canton argued in favor of the latter interpretation and also argued, in the alternative, that its suit should not be found untimely even under the former interpretation because it did not receive notice of the issuance of the permits in question. Based on the plain meaning of the statute and legislative intent, the Superior Court found that the time for filing began to run when the first permit was issued, irrespective of its subject matter. NELF agreed with the Superior Court’s plain meaning interpretation and argued that the decision should be upheld because, among other things, the clearly stated statutory time limit (a) is jurisdictional and therefore cannot be tolled, (b) does not depend on whether or not a party received notice of the issuance of the first permit, and (c) represents the Legislature’s determination of how best to strike a balance between society’s need to encourage property development and its need to protect the environment without incurring undue economic and social costs.
In its decision the SJC affirmed the dismissal of the action as untimely. The Court declined to read into the plain meaning of the statute any qualifications for the subject matter of the triggering permit or for notice. Informing the Court’s decision was its view that the statute’s circumscribed time limit reflects the Legislature’s goal of protecting the environment in a manner consistent with expediting property development and containing the social and economic costs resulting from litigation.