Massachusetts Land Court Denies Non-Owner’s Claim of Prescriptive Rights in Beach Property

The Massachusetts Land Court issued a decision on April 19, 2017 settling a long-running real estate dispute involving the plaintiffs’ claim to a 1.7-mile stretch of beach on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. The court had previously determined that the plaintiffs did not have a title interest in the beach as it currently exists because, due to a combination of sea level rise, waves, tides, storms, and winds, their title interest was to a beach now submerged under the Atlantic Ocean. The issue before the court now was whether the plaintiffs had acquired prescriptive rights to use the entire beach throughout the year, in common with all others legally entitled to use it.

In Massachusetts, an easement by prescription is acquired by the continuous and uninterrupted, open and notorious, and adverse use of another party’s land for a period of not less than 20 years. The plaintiffs in this case claimed to have used the entire 1.7-mile length of beach adversely, notoriously, and continuously since at least 1938. In support of their claim, the plaintiffs relied on an accumulation of various uses and activities conducted by numerous members of their family, their tenants, and guests in the years between 1938 and 1999, in several locations on the beach. These uses included swimming, sunbathing, clamming, and picnicking during the summer season, in addition to riding in vehicles and on horseback, fishing, duck hunting, and surfcasting throughout different seasons of the year.

The court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to show that the plaintiffs’ use of the beach was open and notorious, since they made no attempt to conceal their use of the beach during the relevant time period, and the defendants actually knew about it and saw the plaintiffs use it. The court found that the plaintiffs’ use was adverse in that they used the beach believing that it was their right to do so, and they did not seek or obtain permission from the defendants to use the beach.

The court, however, did not find that the plaintiffs used the whole beach continuously for any uninterrupted period of 20 years. The court recognized that seasonal use will not, standing alone, defeat a claim for a prescriptive easement when seasonal property is at issue. The court went on to explain that, although the plaintiffs need not show the existence of a specific and defined location of use to acquire a prescriptive easement, the evidence must show that the plaintiffs’ use was confined substantially to a regular or particular part of the parcel. After reviewing the evidence, the court concluded that Massachusetts case law did not support their assertion that they may piece together distinct periods of use made of different sections of the beach to acquire prescriptive rights to use the whole 1.7-mile beach. Accordingly, the plaintiffs were not entitled to their claim of a prescriptive easement over the entire stretch of beach.

The real estate lawyers at Pulgini & Norton represent Massachusetts residents in a wide range of residential property issues. We offer comprehensive legal advice in matters concerning land use and zoning laws, home sales and purchase agreements, mortgages and refinancing, and many other residential real estate transactions. To discuss your legal needs with one of our experienced attorneys, contact Pulgini & Norton by phone at (781) 843-2200 or online and schedule your free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Landowners Successfully Challenge Permit Issued for Housing Development Next to Their Property, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 19, 2016

Massachusetts Land Court Finds No Right of Way to Access Landlocked Parcel, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published April 25, 2016

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