The Arguments Are All Moot Now: The SJC Upholds the Legislature’s Chapter 91 Amendments

I’ve been waiting to write this headline ever since the SJC took this case. Today, the SJC issued its long-awaited decision in Moot v. Department of Environmental Protection. For those of you who pay attention to where the waters ebbeth and floweth – or at least where they ebbed and flowed in 1641 – you know that this is the second time that Moot has been before the SJC.

After the SJC struck down MassDEP regulations which provided that landlocked tidelands did not need a license under Chapter 91, as the Commonwealth’s waterways statute is now known, the Legislature took a shot at fixing what would have been a major problem by passing new legislation specifically excluding landlocked tidelands from the need to obtain a license.

Moot challenged the legislation, arguing that it completely relinquished all of the Commonwealth’s rights in private tidelands, without making the findings necessary to justify such a relinquishment. The SJC did not agree. The Court concluded that the Commonwealth has preserved its rights in landlocked tidelands, and noted that projects subject to MEPA must address project impacts on the Commonwealth’s tideland rights. In essence, the Court concluded that the oversight provided by MEPA was sufficient to demonstrate that the Commonwealth could and would still enforce its rights in landlocked tidelands. Since those rights are still protected, the Court concluded, the Legislature had authority to exclude landlocked tidelands from the need to obtain a license under Chapter 91.

This is clearly the right result. The only question in my mind is the gymnastics that the Court had to go through to get there. The Court may have concluded that the Commonwealth has not relinquished all of its rights in landlocked tidelands, but does anyone think that the MEPA process will ever result in developers being required to make changes to their projects to protect those rights? I sure hope not. Certainly, the first developer forced to do anything different as a result of that process is not going to be a happy camper. It would have been cleaner for the SJC to acknowledge that the Legislature was effectively relinquishing the public’s rights in landlocked tidelands and to affirm that act. Nonetheless, this decision pretty much did what was needed and a large number of landowners – not just the developers defending this case – are breathing a lot easier this afternoon.

Historic Boston

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