The Massachusetts Appeals Court had to consider laws and court decisions dating to the 1600s to determine which quarreling neighbors could park and drive on an unpaved path down to a lake in central Massachusetts, but sent the case down to Superior Court yesterday for a judge there to determine whether one of the neighbors could keep his two-slip floating dock in the water at the end of the path.
It's the latest example of one of the most contentious issues in Massachusetts legal circles - who has the right to do what along a shoreline - and one that is still governed by laws and cases stemming from the Colonial Ordinance of 1641-1647. In recent years, cases have tended to focus sea-coast issues, but yesterday's decision centered on an unpaved path down to the water at Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, more commonly known as Webster Lake, but sometimes, as the justices noted, Lake Chaubunagungamaug.
The origins of the case stem from 1948, when the owners of a large piece of land along the lake subdivided it, but left behind a 50-foot-wide path down to the water, with a permanent easement granted to all subdivision owners to use the right of way to get down to the water.
In 2006, a guy bought a house off the path, put in some paving stones to make it easier for vehicles to get down a steep section and installed a 35-foot-wide, two-slip floating dock in the water. He has a large extended family and many friends, and he had frequent parties, for which they would park on the path.
The legal wrangling began when two brothers who own and grew up in houses on the other side of the path started accusing him of blocking other owners' access to the water, either physically, because of the cars and the dock, or verbally, as in threatening others to stay away from his dock. He retorted he had the right do use the path and waterfront as he wished for two reasons: Because along with the house, he also bought the rights to the path from a descendant of one of the original owners of the larger piece of land and the right of way ended roughly 30 feet up from the water, because the lake had receded from the original shoreline.
The court ruled against the guy with the dock when it comes to ownership, saying that no matter who owns the right of way, that doesn't change the easement and that "reliction," or the process by which land is uncovered when a lake recedes, doesn't matter, that property lines along a "great pond" simply continue to extend to the water line, even if it keeps moving away (and, in any case, the court said both sides agreed the water line hadn't much moved since 1960 or so), and so the easement continues to whatever the current shoreline is.
Great pond? The court explained that almost every pond of 10 acres or more in Massachusetts is legally a "great pond" that, in laws dating to the 1600s means they are owned by what is now the Commonwealth. The one exception is Suntaug Lake, in Lynnfield, originally known as Humfry's Pond, which, as the court noted, the king granted in its entirety to John Humfry, Esq. in 1635, several years before the the Colonial Ordinances codified who owns what along and beyond shorelines..
Now, along sea shores, land left over through a buildup of sand or whatever, belongs to the state, but the state filed a brief saying it wasn't much interested in gaining bits and pieces of lakefront property and would leave the land to existing property owners. And that cleared the court to decide: Although the neighbor with the floating dock had, indeed, purchased ownership rights to the path, he still had to let the other neighbors use it to access the lake, under the 1948 permanent easement down to the shoreline.
He was allowed to "improve" the path by putting down paving stones to make it easier to drive right down to the lake to unload boats and stuff. But, the court ruled, he and his visitors are not allowed to park on the path because that could block others from getting to the water (besides, the justices added, there is plenty of parking along nearby public roads).
What of the floating dock? Being floating, it mostly sits on the water, not on the path in question, but the court sent the question of whether it's allowed back to Superior Court to figure out - specifically, whether it blocks other residents' ability to get to the water, either because its width only leaves 15 feet of lake access or because the man has perhaps guarded it a bit too jealously:
According to unrebutted testimony, [the man] made it clear that other people were not welcome to use the area. For example, according to Vince's brother, when he tried to take his nine year old nephew fishing in 2013, and the wind started to blow their rowboat toward the dock, [the man] began yelling,"Don't touch my dock, don't touch my dock, get away from my dock" (an interaction that Vince's brother claimed caused him to avoid using the waterfront area or even Vince's yard when he visits).