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Property Rights Washed Away by the Ocean

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed in White, et al. v. Hartigan, et al. that a Martha's Vineyard landowner's property rights to an exclusive beachfront property does not shift upwards due to the erosion of the beach, but rather, the property and the owner's interest in it simply washes away.

This case involved a dispute over property rights in a 1.7 mile beach parcel on the south shore of Martha's Vineyard in Edgartown. Two families: the Nortons (Plaintiffs) and the Flynns (Defendants) have owned the property upland from the beach. For over a century, the two families peacefully used the beach. However, in the early 1980s their relationship deteriorated, and a dispute arose as to title rights to the beach. In 2004, the Nortons commenced an action in the Land Court to quiet title, ultimately claiming that they owned an interest in the beach.

The Nortons' claimed their ownership in the beach dates to an 1841 deed, which created the beach parcel. Due to the erosion of Martha's Vineyard's southern shoreline, the beach parcel as defined and as it existed in 1841, and even as late as 1938, was now submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, the Flynns claimed that the Nortons have no interest in the beach as it was presently located because their title was only to the beach as it existed in 1841, which was swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean. The Nortons, however, contended that the 1841 deed from which they derive their ownership in the beach conveyed rights in a moveable beach parcel that shifts upland due to the beach erosion.

On appeal, the Nortons argued that the Land Court judge erred in concluding that they do not hold title to any fraction of the beach because the property to which they hold a title interest was now located beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The Nortons contested that the judge's interpretation of the deed from which they derive their ownership to the beach was incorrect. They maintain that their predecessors in title created a beach parcel with a moveable northern boundary that shifts with the beach erosion.

The Supreme Judicial Court recognized that there is a rich and long history in Massachusetts of case law that holds when a parcel of land erodes and the process continues until the original parcel ceases to exist, the lot owner's proprietary interest in the land dissolves. Relying on this precedent, the Court held that because there was no language in the 1841 deed expressly stating that the beach parcel created was moveable, nor was there evidence to indicate the grantor intended to convey a moveable interest, the Nortons hold title to a "fixed and stable" beach parcel. Since the boundaries of the parcel as it existed in 1841 are ascertainable, and are in an area that is now completely covered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Nortons have no title interest in any portion of the beach as it is presently located. Therefore, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the Land Court judge's interpretation of the deed in favor of the Flynns on the Nortons' title claim.

This case is a stoic reminder of the perils of buying waterfront property. Someday, it may cease to exist. Lately, larger and more frequent ocean storms are cutting away at Massachusetts' shoreline in record amounts. If you own or are considering purchasing ocean, river or lake front property, investigate the potential for erosion and if practical create a contingency plan to address the problem, before your property simply disappears.

Contact us online or call Attorney Mucci with your real estate title questions or if you need representation in a title dispute.

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