When Must Suits Be Brought Under MEPA; Too Late May Indeed Be Too Early

In December, I posted about the decision in Canton v. Paiewonsky, in which Judge Fabricant held that a party seeking to challenge the certificate of the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs approving an Environmental Impact Report must do so within 30 days of issuance of the first permit for a project – even if the plaintiff’s concerns about the project are totally unrelated to that permit and the plaintiff would not be harmed by issuance of the permit. As before, I’ll provide the disclaimer that this firm represents the plaintiff in the Canton case.

That acknowledgment aside, it is difficult to read today’s Appeals Court opinion in Hertz v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs as saying anything other than that Judge Fabricant got it wrong. Hertz is technically not even a decision about MEPA. The plaintiffs in Hertz challenged an amendment to a municipal harbor plan. The Appeals Court ruled that they did not have standing, notwithstanding that they abutted the property that was the subject of the amendment to the plan, because they did not suffer a particularized harm that was protected by the municipal harbor plan process.

What is most interesting about the decision in Hertz is that, even though it is not a MEPA case, the Court’s analysis focused on the Supreme Judicial Court decision in Enos v. Secretary of Environmental Affairs – which is a MEPA decision and which is the case on which the Town of Canton relied for the argument its suit was timely. Reading the opinion in Hertz together with Enos, the conclusion seems clear that, had Canton sued to challenge the adequacy of the EIR upon issuance of the first permit issued to the project, Canton’s inability to allege that the issuance of the permit would cause it to suffer particularized harm would have meant that the suit would have been dismissed for lack of standing. That being the case, the statute of limitations cannot begin to run on issuance of the first permit; the statute of limitations has to begin to run on issuance of the permit about which the plaintiff is complaining, because only then has the plaintiff suffered a harm sufficient to provide it with standing to sue.

We’ll see what the SJC does with the appeal in Canton, but it still seems here that the better reading of the MEPA statute is that the statute of limitations for a suit challenging a certificate on an EIR must begin to run when the permit that is the subject of the plaintiff’s concern is issued, rather than when the first permit is issued, regardless of whether the plaintiff has any concerns about that first permit.

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