On May 19, 2021, Relman Colfax filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the Town of Natick, Massachusetts, its Planning Board and Historical Commission discriminated on the basis of race, color and national origin—in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the U.S. Constitution—when they delayed and then denied an application by a Black immigrant couple to build condominiums under a recently-enacted zoning bylaw. The neighborhood in which the project was proposed is one of the whitest and wealthiest in Natick and has very few rental units.

Linda and Joel Valentin worked closely with the Natick Planning Board in 2019 to secure approval of a new zoning bylaw focused on historic preservation and diversification of the housing stock. The bylaw permitted them to pursue a condominium development even though their property was zoned for single-family development. As the first Black developers of a multifamily development in Natick, the Valentins proposed to restore an historic single-family home and replicate a building that has been destroyed some years earlier, providing a total of eleven condominium units. Under local law, two of the units had to be affordable, with the option to provide them on-site or elsewhere.

After initially providing strong support for the Valentins’ project, the complaint alleges, Town officials changed course after some neighbors mounted a racially tinged campaign to oppose the development and seek repeal of the new bylaw. One neighbor accused them of “monkeying around” with the bylaw. Echoing Donald Trump’s dog whistle theme of the 2020 campaign, others claimed that “the suburbs were under attack,” that the project was “an attack South Natick,” and would cause “urban sprawl.” Recalling the ugly practice prominent in the Boston area in the 1960s and 1970s, yet another accused the Valentins of “block busting.” At one point, fearing for their security because of the intensity of the opposition, the Valentins sought the assistance of the Town’s police chief.

The complaint alleges the Planning Board acquiesced to the neighbors’ racist opposition, subjecting their application to a total of 43 hearings and work sessions over 16 months—which is more than twice the number imposed on any comparator—and thereby permitted neighborhood opponents enough time to organize a repeal of the bylaw through the Town Meeting process.

Despite repeated assurances that their application would survive a repeal, the Planning Board denied their application in December 2020, three weeks after the bylaw was repealed.
The complaint, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, damages and attorneys’ fees, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, which denied a motion to dismiss on September 27, 2022.

On December 20, 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris denied the Town’s motion for summary judgment on the FHA and constitutional claims. In her 28-page opinion, Judge Saris pointed to evidence upon which a jury could find that certain neighbors’ opposition to their project was influenced by “racial bias” and that the Town’s Planning Board “gave effect to the racial bias of its residents” by delaying the approval process long enough for the neighbors to secure a repeal of the bylaw. As a consequence of the opinion, the Valentins’ discrimination claims under the FHA and the U.S. Constitution can go forward to a trial scheduled to begin on March 11, 2024.

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