Under RSA 236:112 Property Inundated with Junk is a “Junk Yard” Even if the Owner is Not Selling Junk.

Town of Lincoln v. Joseph Chenard
New Hampshire Supreme Court Case No. 2020-0316
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The defendant, Joseph Chenard, appealed a ruling that he was operating a junk yard in violation of RSA 236:114. The defendant owns four lots located in the town’s “general use” zoning district which allows junk yards by special exception. The defendant’s properties were littered with junk, scrap metal, and broken cars. The defendant did not have a license to operate a junk yard business, nor did he have special exception from the town.  

The town filed suit arguing that the defendant was operating a junk yard without proper authority and sought penalties and attorney's fees. The court found the defendant to be in violation of RSA 236:114 and ordered him to resolve the violation or face a $50 per day fee. The court did not award attorney’s fees to the town.  

The defendant appealed the court’s decision arguing that the trial court erred by applying the junkyard statute to the defendant’s non-business personal property, and that the wrong statute was applied. The town appealed the denial of attorney’s fees.  

The court first looked to RSA 236 to define the nature and purpose of a junk yard. RSA 236:112 defines a junk yard as “a place for storing and keeping, or storing and selling, trading, or otherwise transferring old or scrap…”. RSA 236:111 states that the express purpose of the subdivision on junk yards is to “conserve and safeguard the public safety, health, morals and welfare . . . the maintenance of junk yards is a useful and necessary business.” The defendant argues that because the definition in RSA 236:112 refers to a junk yard as a business, his properties do not qualify as he was only storing personal property and was not engaged in the sale or transfer of any of the junk.  

The court disagreed stating that RSA 236:112 plainly states that a junk yard is defined not just by a place of selling junk but also storing and keeping junk. The court further defined the word “business” to conclude that it can encompass junk yards not operated as a commercial business. Finally, the court noted that the statute even carves out an exemption from the definition of junk yard under RSA 236:111-a for “noncommercial antique motor vehicle restoration activities”.  

The defendant next argued that the trial court failed to identify which of his four lots constituted a junk yard. The court disagreed and stated that the trial court took a view of each of his four lots which included his home lot and three adjacent lots located across the street. Because the court viewed each of the lots and described them as each containing a significant amount of personal property, it was reasonable to conclude that all four lots fell into the definition of junk yard. 

Finally, the defendant argued that the court applied the wrong statute because his land was within New Hampshire’s limited access highway system for I-93 and therefore RSA 236:90-:110 were the correct statutes to apply. The court found that pursuant to RSA 236:111-a, a town has authority to regulate all junk yards in the town that fall within the definition of junk yard in RSA 236:112, I including those that are located adjacent to the interstate and turnpike system, but which are not an establishment or place of business.  

The court then addressed the town’s appeal for attorney’s fees. The town argued that because the court found that the defendant was running a junk yard as defined by RSA chapter 236, even though he wasn’t engaged in the selling of junk, the defendant was in violation of the town’s zoning ordinance and therefore attorney’s fees should be awarded. The court found that the town’s zoning ordinance did not explicitly adopt the wording of RSA 236:112 and therefore turned to the dictionary definition of junk yard. The dictionary defined a junk yard as a yard used to keep usually resalable junk. The court determined that “usually resalable” should be interpreted to mean that there must be some indication that the junk was being sold for it to qualify. Since the defendant was only storing personal property, it did not qualify as a junk yard for these purposes and therefore was not in violation of the town’s zoning ordinance.  


Additional Information: 

Practice Tip- Municipalities should take special note to amend their own zoning ordinances to specifically adopt the statutory definition of a junk yard under RSA 236:112 if they want to seek an award of attorney’s fees for a violation of the local zoning ordinance under RSA 676:17, II.