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Massachusetts Court Examines Early Records to Determine Status of Public Way Passing Through Privately Owned Land

Over many years, the discontinued use of a public road or way could lead to a dispute over ownership, as in a May 9, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case.  The plaintiffs filed the action in the Land Court, seeking a determination that a short, partially paved, and gravel way passing over the defendants’ properties was part of a public way, and furthermore, that it remained a public way today.  Conversely, the defendants argued that it was a private way.  To decide the issue, the Land Court looked at records of the creation of the way from 1816, when the town voted to accept a road laid out in the area of land currently owned by the defendants.

In Massachusetts, a way is not public unless it has become so through one of three ways.  First, it may be laid out by public authority in the manner prescribed by statute.  Second, it may become a public way through prescription.  Lastly, prior to 1846, an owner could dedicate the way to public use, and upon acceptance by the public, it could become a public way.  Under the facts of the case, the area in dispute could only be a public way if it was laid out as such by the town.

Once a public way has been duly laid out, it will continue to be a public way until it is legally discontinued.  Generally, the courts will not assume that public officials have abandoned a highway easement without an act on the part of the property authority to discontinue its status as a public way.  Nor will mere non-use or apparent abandonment of a public way by a town result in the discontinuance of its public status.  In the case, there was no evidence that the disputed area was discontinued.  As a result, if it was properly laid out as a public way in 1816, it would retain that status presently.

Roads created under the applicable 1786 Massachusetts law fell into two categories:  public or town ways and statutory private ways.   Both are essentially open to the public, in that any person may use and enjoy them until they are lawfully discontinued.  However, whereas public or town ways are maintained by the town, the construction and maintenance statutory private ways are not necessarily the obligation of the town.  Accordingly, the road created in 1816 was either a public way or a statutory private way, depending on the purpose for which it was laid out.

After reviewing the record of 1816 town meetings and considering the evidence, the court found that the way in dispute was originally laid out for the benefit of all of the people of the town, rather than for the benefit of a few individuals.  The court therefore concluded that the way was an existing public way and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

At Pulgini & Norton, we assist Massachusetts home buyers and owners in a wide range of residential property law issues.  We can guide people through condo or house closings, mortgage re-financing, building permit applications, and more.  To learn more, schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced land use lawyers.  Contact Pulgini & Norton by phone at (781) 843-2200 or online today.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Homeowner Wins Land Action Against Town, Acquires Use of Private Roadway, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 18, 2017

Massachusetts Homeowners Seek Declaration That Road Bordering Their Property Is Public Way, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published March 27, 2018

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