When the ownership or right to use a road is in dispute, the issue may need to be settled by a court of law. An August 30, 2017 Massachusetts real estate case illustrates a controversy between a homeowner and the town concerning the status of a roadway. The plaintiff sought a judgment that a portion of the roadway was a private way for the use of himself and a neighboring homeowner, but not the public at large. The town denied that the section of the roadway was private, and asserted that it was a public way pursuant to a plan designating it as such, which was filed in connection with a registration petition for the plaintiff’s property by the previous owner.
The issue before the Land Court, therefore, was whether the section of roadway was a private or public way. As the party asserting the public way, the burden was on the town to prove its claim that the section of roadway at issue was public. In Massachusetts, a private way is not public unless it has become so by one of the following ways: (1) a laying out by public authority in the manner prescribed by statute; (2) prescription; or (3) prior to 1846, a dedication by the owner to the public use, permanent and unequivocal, coupled with an express or implied acceptance by the public.
In the case, the town conceded that the public way was not laid out according to the relevant law. The town did not produce any evidence that the roadway was a public way by prescription, nor that it was created by a dedication prior to 1846. The town solely relied on the depiction of the roadway as “public” in the registration plan as conclusive evidence on the issue, arguing that the plaintiff was precluded from asserting that it was a private way.