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“Mine, mine, mine!!” – Private vs Public Property

Walking the beach—whether we have the pleasure of doing so yearround or only for brief periods of time, the water draws us to its edge.

But what if access to your favorite stretches of shoreline were suddenly denied? Not possible, you say?

Consider the following: History tells us that in the 1600s the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted legislation which guaranteed its citizens the use of beaches for hunting, fishing and navigating, at the low water mark. In 1991 the Beach Access law added the word “walk.” The addition of that one word called into question the public’s access to beaches from land currently held in private ownership. The crux of the matter revolves around a portion of real estate law termed “prescriptive easement,” a form of squatters’ rights.

Most of us know this as a method employed to gain legal claim to someone else’s property. In essence, creating a prescriptive easement is accomplished simply by making continuous use of a property, without permission, for a period of twenty years or more. A 1996 case specific to this issue pitted the town of Rockport against a property owner whose land included a path to a popular beachfront walkway.

Incidentally, while Department of Environmental Statistics show that approximately 63% of Massachusetts’ coastline is inaccessible, with all of its bays, estuaries and inlets, estimates indicate that it has more coastline than the state of California.

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