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Massachusetts Law About Beach Rights

Massachusetts Laws

Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1647. Extended private ownership from the mean high water line to the mean low-water line, or 100 rods from the mean high-water line, whichever is less. Previously, ownership had extended only to the high-water mark (under section 16 of the Body of Liberties of 1641).

MGL c.91: Waterways. Section 1 maintains the historical right of access to fish or fowl, defining "Private tidelands'', as "tidelands held by a private party subject to an easement of the public for the purposes of navigation and free fishing and fowling and of passing freely over and through the water."

Massachusetts Cases

Arno v. Commonwealth, 457 Mass. 434 (2010). "After registration, the landowner had fee simple title to any portion of his property that once was submerged tidelands, subject to a condition subsequent that his parcel be used for a public purpose, and fee simple title in any historical tidal flats, subject to an easement of the public."

Boston Waterfront Dev. Corp. v. Commonwealth, 378 Mass. 629 (1979). Provides "a comprehensive overview of the history of Massachusetts tideland law".

Commonwealth v. Alger, 61 Mass. 53 (1851). Called by the Supreme Judicial Court "probably the leading case on the subject."

Commonwealth v. City of Roxbury, 75 Mass. 451 (1857). Explains at great length and in great detail the origins of and changes to property rights along the shore.

Houghton v. Johnson, 71 Mass.App.Ct. 825 (2008). Details the requirements for prescriptive easements over beachfront property.

Opinion of the Justices to the House of Representatives, 365 Mass. 681 (1974). In disapproving a proposed bill to allow walking along private beaches, court provides a clear summary of the law.

Spillane v. Adams, 76 Mass.App.Ct. 378 (2010). Standard for low-water mark. "No definitive standard for tidal marks has been adopted in our appellate case law, and we take this opportunity to do so." The appropriate standard for low water mark is the "'mean low water' as determined by the NGVD."

Storer v. Freeman, 6 Mass. 435 (1810). Explains the change in the law from low-water mark to high-water mark in 1641-47.

Other Web Sources

Private Beach - No Trespassing!,, July 25, 2012. Attorney Richard D. Vetstein "tells us what is considered trespassing on "Private Beachs" in Massachusetts."

Public Access to Buzzards Bay and its Shore, Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program. Helpful site for information regarding "public beaches" , high water mark, low water mark and more for Cape Cod.

Public Rights Along the Shoreline, Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management. Describes the historic ownership of tidelands and the scope of public rights. It says, in part, "Over the years, Massachusetts courts have ruled that the scope of activities on private tidelands covered by the reserved public rights of fishing, fowling, and navigation is broad, and includes all of their 'natural derivatives.'" It then goes on to delineate those "derivatives."

Public Rights-Private Property: FAQ on Beach Access, Cape Cod Home Finder. This is actually a pamphlet that a former Attorney General had put out, reproduced on this site without attribution. Despite that, the information given is sound and extremely helpful.

Print Sources

Solving Waterfront Property Disputes, MCLE, 2008. Includes: Water boundary fundamentals, Mapping littoral boundaries, Municipal issues and concerns regarding waterfront issues, A summary of law governing the loss of or gain of title to beach due to erosion, Property rights in inland waters, Waterfront property rights and environmental issues, Litigation of waterfront property rights, The new ocean management plan law, Select deeds from Crocker's Notes on Common Forms, and Presumed historic high- and low-water marks.