Use and Abuse of Rights of Way and Easements to Massachusetts Great Ponds – Update from McGregor Legere & Stevens, PC

Written by Michael J. O’Neill, Esq.

For anyone contemplating using a right-of-way to reach a Great Pond in Massachusetts, two must-read Appeals Court decisions are Kubic v. Audette, 98 Mass. 289 (2020) (Kubic I) and Kubic v. Audette,  102 Mass. App. Ct. 228 (2023) (Kubic II). They explain the principle of ownership of accreted land bordering a Great Pond, the rights and limits of access to a Great Pond, the tests for overburdening of an easement, and the proper interpretation of easements.

The result is respect for but reasonable limits on use of an easement to reach a Great Pond, reflecting both the intent of the parties in creating the original easement, as well as the traditional limits on uses of a Great Pond itself. Recall that a Great Pond is defined as a natural pond the area of which is twenty acres or more. G.L. c. 131, § 1.

Plaintiffs Vince Kubic and Paul Kubic own adjacent lots separated by a 50-foot wide unpaved right of way that extends from the street to Webster Lake, which is a Great Pond.  This is the lake with the Native American name that is reputed to be the longest: Lake Chaubunagungamaug.  Audette is the owner of an inland lot which has a deeded right of access over the right of way to get to the Lake.  Audette also purchased a release deed of the right of way from a purported heir of the original developer of the subdivision of which the properties are a part and thereafter claimed that he owned the fee in the right of way. Conflict arose when Audette began using the right of way more intensely than other easement holders historically had done.

Audette represented to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) that he owned the land at the end of the right of way and obtained a waterways license pursuant to G.L. c. 91, the Massachusetts Tidelands and Waterways Act.  He constructed a trident-shaped dock at the end of the right of way, thirty-five feet wide and protruding fifty feet into the lake.  He docked his boat there, which comfortably held fifteen people.  He used the right of way regularly, as much as every day during the summer.  He has a large family, who had an open invitation and were regular guests.  He graded the right of way and installed pavers to facilitate motor vehicle access.

The Kubics brought an action in Land Court to quiet title in the right of way and to establish the parties’ rights to use it.  The Land Court ruled in favor of the Kubics on some of the issues and in Audette’s favor on others, but declined to rule on some issues.

The record established that, at least for a period of time that included 1948, the shoreline was submerged.  Under the legal principles governing accretion and reliction of the ocean and certain water bodies, this raised some question whether the Commonwealth might make some claim of ownership if and when it reemerged. There are many cases about who owns “new land” when it appears, or loses “their land” when it goes under water, but here the Commonwealth disavowed such a claim. The state took the position that the reemerged land would belong to the littoral owners.  This is consistent with the general rule that the waterside boundaries of littoral property generally follow the changing waterline.  

There are exceptions to this general rule that lot lines move with the water lines.  An owner cannot artificially add to his land and then claim the benefit of the addition. McGregor Legere & Stevens has applied this principle against a littoral owner who excluded our client and others from artificially-filled land in this same Lake Webster. In such disputes, the history (or lack thereof) of the filling, dredging or grading of such a shoreline becomes relevant or even determinative. These disputes often arise in coastal areas, where lands are affected by tidal action and by storms, so the landforms are dynamic, but also in lakes, ponds, rivers and streams where alterations may be natural or man-made. 

The Appeals Court used the term “littoral,” not “riparian.” It is useful to consider the natural processes which are at work and the resulting movement of the ownership line. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “littoral rights” are rights concerning properties abutting an ocean, sea, or lake rather than a river or stream (riparian). The accretion and reliction principles vis a vis the line of ownership, however, appear to apply equally, with variations possible from the general rule. Specifically, the decision in Kubic I stated in footnote 6: “As a general rule, a littoral owner is entitled to newly emergent land whether that land emerged as a result of accretion (the gradual buildup of material next to the existing land) or reliction (the gradual receding of the waters), while such an owner loses title to the land lost to the water through erosion.” 

In the case of East Boston Co. v. Commonwealth, 203 Mass 68 (1909), dealing with tidal flats, the SJC had held: “Upon the doctrines applying to accretion and erosion and to the elevation and subsidence of land affecting the water line along the shore of the sea under conditions like these, the line of ownership follows the changing water line.” We observe that this rule would seem to apply to deeds and other real estate instruments describing the property as extending to, by or along “the shore,” “the water,” “the lake,” “the pond,” “the bay,” “the river,” “the ocean,” ”the sea,” and the like. This rule would not apply, it seems,  if the deeds instead go along a described line or to a point, in modern times a metes and bounds, or perhaps by operation of the derelict fee statute to the midpoint of a way or water. In the latter situations, the property in question consists of specific size, dimensions and lot lines which are fixed and not flexible.  

The Appeals Court held in Kubic I that the Kubics owned the fee in the right of way down to the waterline, and the easement holders were given the right to use the right of way to gain access to the Lake, which, once there, they could use for fishing, swimming, boating, and other uses that are reserved for the public in Great Ponds.   The Appeals Court further held that it was within the Land Court’s authority to conclude that the use of motor vehicles on the right of way was reasonably necessary to full enjoyment of the access rights that the easement provided, but that this does not mean that Audette had the right to park motor vehicles on the right of way.   Rather, Audette only had the right to temporary parking on the right of way to offload people or items.   Also, Audette could not occupy the right of way by hosting social events and placement of a picnic table in it, interfering with the right of the Kubics and others to gain access to the Lake. 

Kubic I, as a result, vacated the Land Court Judgment insofar as it stated that Audette and his household members have a right to park in the right of way, modified it to prohibit Audette’s actions in the shoreline area that constitute occupation of that area, and remanded the case to the Land Court to address the extent to which Audette’s use of the dock unreasonably interferes with the rights of the Kubics and people other than Audette who hold easement rights in the right of way. That remand, which came back up to the Appeals Court, resulted in Kubic II.

Kubic II framed the issue to be whether the Audette’s use of the right of way constituted an overburdening of the easement, which it defined as “use for a purpose different from that intended in the creation of the easement.”  The Appeals Court then instructs how overburdening is shown by attending to changes in the “manner, frequency, or intensity of the use.”    

Kubic II includes directions as to how the reviewing court is to determine the scope of the easement.  “We construe the scope of an easement from the parties’ intent, which we ascertain from the relevant instruments and the objective circumstances to which they refer.”  It continued to provide helpful, practical guidance: a “court may consider subsequent uses, not too remote in time or disconnected from deed, to discern parties’ intent in creating easement.”  It is not uncommon for an easement to be created merely by a brief, one- or two-sentence statement in a deed.  It is helpful that the Appeals Court in this case recognizes that evidence of the interpretation that the parties themselves gave to the easement at the time, which may be considered by the Court to assist in the determination of the intent of the parties.

The Land Court on remand did not reach the question whether the placement of the dock interfered with the use of the right of way by the Kubics and others. Rather, it determined that the intended uses of the right of way were limited to the “transient uses traditionally associated with public access to tidal waters, navigable streams, and great ponds,” such as fishing, swimming, boating, and other uses that are reserved for the public in Great Ponds.  It ruled that Audette could use the right of way for temporary parking and placement of items (for no more than fifteen minutes) to serve such purposes.  The Appeals Court affirmed that limitation in Kubic II. 

Audette had argued that because the right of way was unquestionably intended to provide easement holders access to the lake for boating, it follows that it must also provide him access for a dock.  The Appeals Court rejected this argument, stating that the fact that he has a general right of way does not mean that he may exercise it in any manner he sees fit.  

Audette then argued in the Appeals Court for the first time that MassDEP’s grant of a waterways license under Chapter 91 to construct and maintain the dock necessarily implied that he has a property right to use the right of way to gain access to it.  The Appeals Court ruled that this “argument of last resort” not only was waived, but also was meritless.  “Licenses granted under c. 91 do not create property rights, nor do they authorize interference with the property rights of others.”    In footnote 5 of Kubic II, the Appeals Court stated outright that Audette’s standing and chapter 91 claims were frivolous.

Kubic I and Kubic II, taken together, strongly stand for the proposition that the holder of a right of way cannot interfere with rights of way held by others.  They reinforce the principle that a right of way is a lesser interest than ownership of the fee interest, and when the owner of a right of way uses it as if he owns the fee, he is likely to get their wings clipped.  And these cases protect Great Ponds by recognizing the uses of the easement to the water are limited by the proper uses of a Great Pond, in which the Commonwealth has an interest in protecting and managing for the benefit of the public.