Welch v. Swasey , 214 U.S. 91 ( 1909 )

  • 214 U.S. 91 (1909)


    No. 153.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued April 15, 16, 1909.
    Decided May 17, 1909.

    *95 Mr. Burton Edward Eames, with whom Mr. Charles H. *96 Tyler and Mr. Owen D. Young were on the brief, for plaintiff in error.

    *101 Mr. Thomas M. Babson for defendant in error.

    *103 MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The ground of objection of plaintiff in error to this legislation is that the statutes unduly and unreasonably infringe upon his constitutional rights, (a) As to taking of property without compensation; (b) As to denial of equal protection of the laws.

    Plaintiff in error refers to the existence of a general law in Massachusetts applicable to every city therein, limiting the height of all buildings to one hundred and twenty-five feet above the grade of the street (acts of 1891, ch. 355), and states that he does not attack the validity of that act in any respect, but concedes that it is constitutional and valid. See also on same subject acts of 1892, ch. 419, § 25, making such limitation as to the City of Boston. His objection is directed to the particular statutes, because they provide for a much lower limit in certain parts of the City of Boston, to be designated by a commission, and because a general restriction of height as low as eighty or one hundred feet over any substantial portion of the city is, as he contends, an unreasonable infringement upon his rights of property; also that the application of those limits to districts B, which comprise the greater part of the City of Boston, leaving the general one hundred and twenty-five feet limit in force in those portions of the city, which *104 the commission should designate (being the commercial districts), is an unreasonable and arbitrary denial of equal rights to the plaintiff in error and others in like situation.

    Stating his objections more in detail, the plaintiff in error contends that the purposes of the acts are not such as justify the exercise of what is termed the police power, because, in fact, their real purpose was of an aesthetic nature, designed purely to preserve architectural symmetry and regular sky-lines, and that such power cannot be exercised for such a purpose. It is further objected that the infringement upon property rights by these acts is unreasonable and disproportioned to any public necessity, and also that the distinction between one hundred and twenty-five feet for the height of buildings in the commercial districts described in the acts, and eighty to one hundred feet in certain other or so-called residential districts, is wholly unjustifiable and arbitrary, having no well-founded reason for such distinction, and is without the least reference to the public safety, as from fire, and inefficient as means to any appropriate end to be attained by such laws.

    In relation to these objections the counsel for the plaintiff in error, in presenting his case at bar, made a very clear and able argument.

    Under the concession of counsel, that the law limiting the height of buildings to one hundred and twenty-five feet is valid, we have to deal only with the question of the validity of the provisions stated in these statutes and in the conditions provided for by the commissions, limiting the height in districts B between eighty and one hundred feet.

    We do not understand that the plaintiff in error makes the objection of illegality arising from an alleged delegation of legislative power to the commissions provided for by the statutes. At all events, it does not raise a Federal question. The state court holds that kind of legislation to be valid under the state constitution and this court will follow its determination upon that question.

    We come, then, to an examination of the question whether *105 these statutes with reference to limitations on height between eighty and one hundred feet and in no case greater than one hundred feet are valid. There is here a discrimination or classification between sections of the city, one of which, the business or commercial part, has a limitation of one hundred and twenty-five feet, and the other, used for residential purposes, has a permitted height of buildings from eighty to one hundred feet.

    The statutes have been passed under the exercise of so-called police power, and they must have some fair tendency to accomplish, or aid in the accomplishment of some purpose, for which the legislature may use the power. If the statutes are not of that kind, then their passage cannot be justified under that power. These principles have been so frequently decided as not to require the citation of many authorities. If the means employed, pursuant to the statute, have no real, substantial relation to a public object which government can accomplish; if the statutes are arbitrary and unreasonable and beyond the necessities of the case; the courts will declare their invalidity. The following are a few of the many cases upon this subject: Mugler v. Kansas, 123 U.S. 623, 661; Minnesota v. Barber, 136 U.S. 313, 320; Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 28; Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 57; Chicago Railway Company v. Drainage Commissioners, 200 U.S. 561, 593.

    In passing upon questions of this character as to the validity and reasonableness of a discrimination or classification in relation to limitations as to height of buildings in a large city, the matter of locality assumes an important aspect. The particular circumstances prevailing at the place or in the State where the law is to become operative; whether the statute is really adapted, regard being had to all the different and material facts, to bring about the results desired from its passage; whether it is well calculated to promote the general and public welfare, are all matters which the state court is familiar with, but a like familiarity cannot be ascribed to this court, assuming *106 judicial notice may be taken of what is or ought to be generally known. For such reason this court, in cases of this kind, feels the greatest reluctance in interfering with the well-considered judgments of the courts of a State whose people are to be affected by the operation of the law. The highest court of the State in which statutes of the kind under consideration are passed is more familiar with the particular causes which led to their passage (although they may be of a public nature) and with the general situation surrounding the subject-matter of the legislation than this court can possibly be. We do not, of course, intend to say that under such circumstances the judgment of the state court upon the question will be regarded as conclusive, but simply that it is entitled to the very greatest respect, and will only be interfered with, in cases of this kind, where the decision is, in our judgment, plainly wrong. In this case the Supreme Judicial Court of the State holds the legislation valid, and that there is a fair reason for the discrimination between the height of buildings in the residential as compared with the commercial districts. That court has also held that regulations in regard to the height of buildings, and in regard to their mode of construction in cities, made by legislative enactments for the safety, comfort or convenience of the people and for the benefit of property owners generally, are valid. Attorney-General v. Williams, 174 Massachusetts, 476. We concur in that view, assuming, of course, that the height and conditions provided for can be plainly seen to be not unreasonable or inappropriate.

    In relation to the discrimination or classification made between the commercial and the residential portion of the city, the state court holds in this case that there is reasonable ground therefor, in the very great value of the land and the demand for space in those parts of Boston where a greater number of buildings are used for the purposes of business or commercially than where the buildings are situated in the residential portion of the city, and where no such reasons exist for high buildings. While so deciding the court cited, with *107 approval, Commonwealth v. Boston Advertising Company, 188 Massachusetts, 348, which holds that the police power cannot be exercised for a merely aesthetic purpose. The court distinguishes between the two cases and sustains the present statutes. As to the condition adopted by the commission for permitting the erection, in either of the districts B, that is, the residential portion, of buildings of over eighty feet, but never more than one hundred, that the width on each and every public street on which the building stands shall be at least one-half its height, the court refuses to hold that such condition was entirely for aesthetic reasons. The Chief Justice said: "We conceive that the safety of adjoining buildings, in view of the risk of the falling of walls after a fire, may have entered into the purpose of the commissioners. We are of opinion that the statutes and orders of the commissioners are constitutional."

    We are not prepared to hold that this limitation of eighty to one hundred feet, while in fact a discrimination or classification, is so unreasonable that it deprives the owner of the property of its profitable use without justification, and that he is therefore entitled under the Constitution to compensation for such invasion of his rights. The discrimination thus made is, as we think, reasonable, and is justified by the police power.

    It might well be supposed that taller buildings in the commercial section of the city might be less dangerous in case of fire than in the residential portion. This court is not familiar with the actual facts, but it may be that in this limited commercial area the high buildings are generally of fireproof construction; that the fire engines are more numerous and much closer together than in the residential portion, and that an unlimited supply of salt water can be more readily introduced from the harbor into the pipes, and that few women or children are found there in the daytime and very few people sleep there at night. And there may in the residential part be more wooden buildings, the fire apparatus may be more widely scattered and so situated that it would be more difficult to obtain the necessary amount of water, as the residence quarters *108 are more remote from the water front, and that many women and children spend the day in that section, and the opinion is not strained that an undiscovered fire at night might cause great loss of life in a very high apartment house in that district. These are matters which it must be presumed were known by the legislature, and whether or not such were the facts was a question, among others, for the legislature to determine. They are asserted as facts in the brief of the counsel for the City of Boston. If they are, it would seem that ample justification is therein found for the passage of the statutes, and that the plaintiff in error is not entitled to compensation for the reasonable interference with his property rights by the statutes. That in addition to these sufficient facts, considerations of an aesthetic nature also entered into the reasons for their passage, would not invalidate them. Under these circumstances there is no unreasonable interference with the rights of property of the plaintiff in error, nor do the statutes deprive him of the equal protection of the laws. The reasons contained in the opinion of the state court are in our view sufficient to justify their enactment. The judgment is therefore


Document Info

DocketNumber: 153

Citation Numbers: 214 U.S. 91, 29 S. Ct. 567, 53 L. Ed. 923, 1909 U.S. LEXIS 1895

Judges: Peckham, After Making the Foregoing Statement

Filed Date: 5/17/1909

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 5/4/2017

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