Cacophony of Opinions as Law Court Attempts to Clarify Appeal Deadlines
In a decision that included a majority opinion, a concurrence, and two separate dissents, the Maine Supreme Court struggled mightily to establish the deadline for opponents of a wind power project to appeal an approval issued by the Town of Clifton Zoning Board of Appeals. The majority in Beckford v. Clifton, 2014 ME 156, dismissed the opponents' appeal as untimely, but the Court's difference of opinion on the subject was highlighted by Chief Justice Saufley's request, in a concurrence, that the Legislature overhaul the state's patchwork of appellate deadlines to clarify the "variations and ambiguities in the application of legislatively established time frames for appeal." Id. ¶ 24.
At issue in the case was whether the appeal period was triggered when the ZBA voted to deny the opponents' appeal, or when it voted five days later to adopt written findings memorializing its decision. The majority held that the ZBA vote disposing of the appeal – despite the absence of written findings – was sufficient to trigger the appeal period because of the combination of Maine Rule of Civil Procedure 80B, which provides that "the time within which review may be sought shall be as provided by statute," and the ZBA statute, which states that "any party may take an appeal within 45 days of the vote on the original decision." 30-A M.R.S.A. § 2691(3)(G) (emphasis added).
One upshot of Beckford is that a 2014 change to the text of Rule 80B, intended to clarify the triggering event for municipal administrative appeal periods, does not apply to appeals of ZBA decisions or appeals of other municipal decisions that are similarly governed by statute. 2014 ME 156, ¶¶ 8 n.2 and 14 n.5.
Justices Silver and Jabar dissented on the grounds that the minutes of the earlier ZBA meeting stated that "it would meet [five days later] for the final decision." Id. ¶ 30 (emphasis in original). The justices adopted the Superior Court's reasoning that "there would be no need to schedule the matter [five days later] for the 'Final Decision' if the final decision had already been made." Id. ¶ 31.
Justice Alexander dissented primarily on the basis that the Court has previously expressed a policy preference for appellate deadlines running from the issuance of written findings so that potential appellants can make more informed decisions and make more efficient use of judicial resources. Id. ¶ 36 (quoting Gorham v. Androscoggin County, 2011 ME 63, ¶¶ 15-16).
Although Chief Justice Saufley agreed with the majority's holding and reasoning in dismissing the appeal, she wrote separately in a concurrence out of concern over the "difficulties caused by the imprecise or varying language that triggers appellate time frames." Id. ¶ 28. In closing Saufley stated, "It would greatly benefit the people of the State of Maine if the Legislature undertook a thorough review of the events that trigger the running of the time for appellate review for both state and municipal appeals to establish a single, consistent, and understandable triggering event and time frame for seeking appellate review." Id. ¶ 29.