In 1991, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) adopted a new regulation under G. L. c. 91 that reversed longstanding common law presumptions about the ownership of shorefront property. Because the most common means of shoreline increase is accretion (slow and gradual addition of upland at the mean high tide line) and because it is so difficult to prove imperceptible, gradual growth, Massachusetts courts have adopted a rebuttable presumption that a shoreline increase is due to accretion. The presumption is important because accretion accrues to the property owner, whereas shoreline increases due to major storms or unpermitted filling do not. The 1991 DEP regulation, 310 CMR § 9.02, reversed this presumption and placed the burden on property owners to prove that all land seaward of the “historic high tide” level has resulted exclusively from “natural accretion not caused by the owner . . . .”
Following promulgation of its regulation, DEP suggested that owners of shorefront property seaward of the “historic” high tide line, as mapped by DEP, apply for amnesty licenses. NELF’s client, Elena Hall, owns a parking lot on shorefront property in Provincetown that provides Ms. Hall with her sole significant source of income. Approximately one-third of the parking lot and a portion of a small rental cottage on the property are seaward of DEP’s “historic” high tide line. Ms. Hall applied for an amnesty license and DEP issued a license imposing several onerous and costly conditions on Ms. Hall’s right to use her property seaward of the “historic” line.
Ms. Hall filed an administrative appeal with DEP and NELF agreed to take over Ms. Hall’s representation in this test case of DEP’s regulation. During the administrative and any subsequent judicial proceedings in this case, NELF will challenge DEP’s mapping of the “historic mean high water mark” and argue that DEP’s regulation exceeds that agency’s statutory authority and effects an unconstitutional taking of private property. NELF will further argue that a license condition requiring a four-foot-wide public access way across the entire width of Ms. Hall’s upland property to the beach effects a taking of her property requiring just compensation. This is so because the public’s limited rights in tidelands do not include a right of access across private upland property to reach the water or coastal tidelands. DEP has therefore imposed a license condition that bears no relationship to any recognized public right, let alone a public right protected under c. 91 and affected by the licensed use of Ms. Hall’s property.
NELF filed a potentially dispositive memorandum of law, accompanied by a detailed and thorough expert affidavit, with multiple map overlay exhibits, arguing that DEP simply has no jurisdiction over Ms. Hall’s property. In particular, NELF staff worked closely with the experts in scrutinizing carefully the historical maps pertaining to Provincetown Harbor and in determining that the application of the mean high tide line derived from the earliest reliable historical map to Ms. Hall’s property leaves the disputed portion of her property free and clear of the designation “Commonwealth tidelands.” NELF received a piecemeal, informal response from DEP challenging various aspects of NELF’s expert’s methodology.
The Administrative Law Judge then ordered the parties’ experts to meet, with the attorneys present, to exchange opinions and determine whether settlement was possible. While the meeting was productive, settlement is not possible at this time. DEP’s most salient challenge concerned the historic location of a lighthouse upon which Ms. Hall’s expert relied in determining the location of the historic mean high water mark. This challenge led the expert to reexamine the historic location of other lighthouses which he used in his methodology. NELF has also researched and briefed potential legal challenges to DEP’s regulation and license conditions under the Takings Clause and the ultra vires doctrine, which NELF would be prepared to reach should it not succeed on its position with respect to the historic high water mark.