Published on: January 12, 2016

Questions about private beach rights are common in Massachusetts and are frequently the subject of highly emotional disputes among those involved.  Often, the dispute is not about the beach itself but about private access to the beach.  As coastal communities were developed, it was not unusual for subdivision developers to create private ways between beach front lots to allow beach access by inland owners. Under such circumstances, however, some beach front owners have claimed a superior right and attempted to close or obstruct private ways to prevent inland owners from traveling over the way to the beach.  One such dispute in Dennis, Massachusetts, found its way to court and concluded with a recent decision issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  The SJC decision in Hickey v. Pathways Assoc. Inc., decided on September 22, 2015, provides important guidance for determining easement rights not just on private ways leading to the beach, but on private ways generally and, in particular, private ways located on registered land.

In Hickey, the plaintiffs were owners of two beachfront lots, created in the 1930s, that are divided by a 20 foot-wide private way leading perpendicular from a roadway to the beach.  The defendants are owners of 38 inland lots that were created in phases from 1940 through 1977.  For decades, the inland lot owners used the private way to gain access to the beach and ocean.  In 2009, the beachfront lot owners filed an action in the Land Court seeking to quiet title and to obtain a declaratory judgment that they had exclusive ownership and rights to use the way.

The inland lot owners obtained a partial victory from a judge in the Massachusetts Land Court, who decided that most but not all of the inland owners had sufficient proof of an easement over the private way.  The Land Court decision was appealed, and the SJC took the matter under direct appellate review.  The SJC first considered the beachfront lot owners’ claim that they had exclusive ownership of the way under the “derelict fee” doctrine, by which a lot owner is presumed to own to the centerline of a private way abutting his or her lot.  Under this principle, the beachfront lot owners argued that the purchase of their lots included ownership to the centerline of the way on their respective sides.  The beach front owners further argued that their lots were created and sold first, and at that point they owned the way.  Accordingly, they argued, the developer subsequently had no right to grant easements over the way to the inland owners.

The SJC disagreed with the beach front owners based on evidence that the developers actually intended to retain ownership over the way in furtherance of their plan to develop the subdivision.  First, the Court noted that the original developers conveyed easements over the way to the two beachfront lot owners, indicating that the developers did not intend to convey ownership of the way to them.  The Court reasoned that such ways were of no use to the beachfront lot owners because they had open access to the beach on their own lots.

The Court then turned to the question as to whether the inland lot owners had easement rights over the subject way.  In arguing against the easements, the beachfront lot owners relied on a general rule established by the Massachusetts Land Registration Act, M.G.L. c. 185, § 46, that the holder of registered land “shall hold the same free from all encumbrances except those noted on the certificate [of title] . . . .”   The beachfront lot owners’ certificates of title contain no reference to any easement rights by the inland owners over the way; therefore, according to the beachfront lot owners, no such rights exist.

The Court again disagreed with the beachfront lot owners.  The Court noted an exception carved out in Jackson v. Knott, 418 Mass. 704 (1994), allowing easements on registered land even though they are not noted on a certificate of title.  The exception is triggered where facts exist in documents recorded in the registry system that “would prompt a reasonable purchaser to investigate further other certificates of title, documents, or plans in the registration system.”  The Court explained that under this exception, a purchaser of registered land is expected to examine the plans, certificates, and other documents in the registration system to look for evidence of easements or other encroachments on the land.  The Court concluded that from the beginning of the subdivision development, the plans depicted a “network of interconnecting ways,” making it apparent to any beachfront lot purchaser that the inland lot owners would have use of the ways.

Having determined that the beachfront lot owners were on notice of easement rights, the Court then reviewed the certificates of title of the 38 inland lot owners to determine whether the developers gave them easement rights over the ways. The Court concluded that the developers had conveyed easement rights to the inland owners on all the ways on the subdivision plans, and that necessarily included the way between the plaintiffs’ lots leading to the beach.  Even where the developers made reference to easement rights over just a section of the larger subdivision plan, the Court concluded that all the subdivision plan segments were interconnected and therefore an express easement right over a plan segment extended to all the private ways in the subdivision.

The Hickey decision establishes once and for all that the law does not support a hyper-technical application of the Registration Act to exclude all easements not appearing on a certificate of title.  The Court emphasized that subdivision plans and certificates of title in the registration system may establish a common scheme to benefit others, and that is sufficient to establish easement rights under the law.  The Court emphasized that purchasers of registered land are expected to do more than review a plan showing their lot, and they are advised to review all potentially relevant information in the registration system, including plans, certificates of title, and documents, to determine their rights and the rights of others.

For a copy of the Decision [click here].