As Beach Disappears, So Do Property Rights

Photo of Jeffrey A. Soilson

In a case decided just last week, the Supreme Judicial Court (the "SJC") rejected the Plaintiffs-Appellants' contention that they held an interest in a "moveable" beach lot that shifted with the sands as the original lot disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean.

In White v. Hartigan, SJC-11072, handed down on February 8, 2013, the SJC considered the rights of two sets of parties in a Martha's Vineyard beach.

The Plaintiff-Appellant parties all derived their purported title from that once held by the Norton family, and the Defendant-Appellee parties all derived their title from that once held by the Flynn family. Although not all of the parties to the present litigation are members of either family, the Court referred for ease of reference to the Plaintiffs-Appellants as the "Nortons" and to the Defendants-Appellees as the "Flynns." We do the same here.

The Court traced the parties' respective titles to 1693. The Nortons claimed to have a fractional interest in a beach lot that was created by deed executed in 1841. The parties all agree that the original beach lot is now submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The Flynns maintained that the Nortons had no interest in the beach area as it presently exists. As summarized by the SJC, the Nortons, on the other hand, claimed to have rights in a "moveable beach parcel that shifts upland with the northerly migration of the beach."

The SJC described long-standing authority for the proposition that a shoreline boundary is not fixed - meaning that a shorefront lot will expand with the accumulation of sand through accretion and will shrink with the beach's erosion.

According to the SJC, this long-standing rule is grounded in three property-related interests: "(1) the interest in preserving the water-abutting nature of littoral property, (2) the promotion of stability in title and ownership of property as it concerns newly accreted property, and (3) the equitable principle that a property owner who enjoys the benefit of an increase in property when waterlines shift seaward ought also to bear the burden of a decrease in property when waterlines shift landward."

Accordingly, the SJC held, "[a] littoral property thus contains a moveable shoreline boundary, but its other boundaries ordinarily are fixed." Moreover, with respect to whether any particular grant language could create a moveable lot, the Court held that "absent clear intent to the contrary, we presume that littoral properties contain fixed landward boundaries." The evidence relied on by the Nortons (including the language of the 1841 deed) fell short of that standard in the instant case, and the SJC upheld the Land Court's determination that the Nortons do not own fractional interests in the beach as it presently exists.

For the Nortons and the Flynns, however, the matter is not entirely at an end. As to the Nortons' claim that they acquired a prescriptive easement to use the beach, the Court remanded the case to the Land Court for further findings of fact.

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