The SJC Really Means It: Only the Legislature Can Give Up the Public’s Ownership Interest in Tidelands

As many of you know, the Commonwealth’s tidelands licensing statute, Chapter 91, is one of my favorites, for no other reason than that it gives me the opportunity to talk about where the “waters ebbeth and floweth.”  Deriving from the Colonial Ordinances of 1641 and 1647, Chapter 91 is about as arcane as it gets – which, of course, lawyers are supposed to like.

The short version is that the Commonwealth holds the fee interest in “Commonwealth Tidelands” – those below the low water line. While the Commonwealth can license private use of Commonwealth Tidelands, only the legislature, acting explicitly, can give up those rights. Private Tidelands, the land between high and low water, are owned by the upland owner, but are subject to public rights in “fishing, fowling, and navigation” – another reason why I love Chapter 91.




In a decision handed down today, the Massachusetts SJC made crystal-clear that nothing short of an explicit legislative act is sufficient to eliminate the public’s ownership rights in tidelands. In Arno v. Commonwealth, the “owner” of land in Nantucket that was filled in the 19th Century sued the Commonwealth, essentially seeking a declaration that he was the fee owner of the land. His argument was that a prior owner had registered the land in 1922, and the Attorney General, in commenting at the time, did not object to registration or assert that the Commonwealth still owned the land. To the SJC, what the AG did – or intended to do – in 1922 was irrelevant.

Neither the Land Court nor the Attorney General had the authority to divest the public of its rights in Arno’s parcel…. Only an act of or an express delegation by the Legislature could extinguish the public’s rights.

The decision is probably not a surprise following the SJC’s original Moot decision, but is nonetheless a lesson to those who would claim ownership in tidelands. If the waters ebbeth and floweth – or if they ever did – only the legislature can give them away.

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