Nectow v. City of Cambridge, U.S. Supreme Court (1928)

Facts: The plaintiff owned a 140,000 square foot tract of land in Cambridge, Mass, which was vacant. The city of Cambridge enacted a zoning ordinance (after the plaintiff's purchase) which restricted the territory to the north and west for residential use only, while the land to the south and east were unrestricted (and did include industrial use; there was a Ford Motor company assembly plant sited within 75 feet, a soap factory, and nearby rail tracks). However, in drawing the zoning boundary, the city divided the plaintiff's tract of land, with a 100-foot wide strip on the eastern side within the residential zone. Subsequently, an outstanding contract of sale for most of the tract was cancelled. Further, plans to widen the frontage street will shave the residential-zoned strip down to only 65 feet of width.

The plaintiff sought a mandatory injunction directing the city to allow the plaintiff to acquire a permit to erect any lawful buildings on the tract.

Procedure: The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, after obtaining a master's report, sustained the ordinance and dismissed the case.

Issue: Should a zoning ordinance be upheld for a locus, even when the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants of the part of the city affected will not be promoted according to the master (? master planner?), and when the application of the ordinance to that locus is highly injurious to the property holder?

Holding: The lower court was reversed and the court found in favor of the plaintiff; an injunction was issued.

Rationale: The master's own report stated that the inclusion of the strip of land within the residential zone did not promote the health, safety, convenience or general welfare of the inhabitants, and so the presumption of validity was invalid; this zoning line was not the least objectionable means of achieving the goals of the zoning ordinance. Rather, the zoning boundary could be moved 100 feet east so as to be on the street and not bisect Nectow's property, and still achieve the same goals.

Additional Notes: The key thing is that since the master's report said that it wouldn't hurt to move the boundary, the court was not asserting something different. On another website, the master's report is quoted: 'I am satisfied that the districting of the plaintiff's land in a residence district would not promote the health, safety, convenience, and general welfare of the inhabitants of that part of the defendant city, taking into account the natural development thereof and he character of the district and the resulting benefit to accrue to the whole city and I so find.' (