Massachusetts Court of Appeals Rules for Plaintiffs in Adverse Possession of Woodlands

In a recently published opinion, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals examined the law of adverse possession and color of title claims in a property dispute surrounding natural, wild lands. In Paine v. Sexton, the plaintiffs sought to register nearly 36 acres of woodlands, based on adverse possession. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs could not establish adverse possession when they had not enclosed or cultivated the natural areas, and they also contended that the deed under which they claimed color of title did not have an adequate description to support their claim. The appeals court affirmed the decision of the trial court finding in favor of the plaintiffs.

Adverse Possession

In Paine v. Sexton, the plaintiffs had operated a commercial campground on the land since 1958. Although they had cleared campsites and added picnic tables, built an office building and bathroom facilities, erected some fencing, and made other improvements to the area, they did not enclose or cultivate the entire 36 acres in order to maintain privacy between campsites, as well as to preserve the naturally wooded condition of the grounds.

To succeed on a claim of adverse possession under Massachusetts law, a claimant must show non-permissive use of the property for more than 20 years in a manner that is actual, open, notorious, exclusive, and adverse. The adverse possession law as applied to wild or unimproved lands, however, logically requires a more pronounced, obvious possession in order to put the lawful owner on notice that another person is occupying the woodland property. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs did not satisfy these elevated standards of the adverse possession law for wild lands. The appeals court disagreed, holding that by operating and advertising a commercial campground business, constructing roads, clearing campsites, and restricting access to its customers, the plaintiffs’ use of the land was sufficient to put the record owners on notice that they occupied the property under a claim of right.

Color of Title

Pursuant to the legal doctrine of color of title, once a claimant establishes adverse possession of a portion of land, he may obtain title to both the portion actually occupied, as well as the entire parcel described in a deed to the claimant. In Paine v. Sexton, the deeds relied on by the plaintiffs included references to the assessors’ maps of the town, as well as metes and bounds descriptions of the lots claimed. The defendants argued that the assessors’ maps provided an inadequate description of the property. The court of appeals held that, regardless of the supplemental reference to the assessors’ maps, the deeds contained a valid, detailed description of the property, making it easy to find and open to public inspection. As a result, the court affirmed the order in favor of the plaintiffs on both adverse possession and color of title claims.

If you are involved in a property dispute or other real estate issue, a knowledgeable attorney can inform you of your options under the law. The Massachusetts attorneys at Pulgini & Norton offer skilled legal representation in a variety of real estate matters, including closings, home sales, mortgages and refinancing, and others. To discuss your real estate needs with one of our experienced attorneys, call (781) 843-2200 or contact us online.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Finding of Abandoned Easement, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published June 10, 2015

Appeals Court of Massachusetts Decides Easement Issue in Neighbors’ Dispute, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 4, 2015

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