Thursday, January 16, 2020

Remote Video Acknowledgements Have Arrived

The Middlesex North Registry of Deeds recently recorded a mortgage for property in Tyngsborough. Like 75 percent of all mortgages we record, it arrived electronically. The document was signed by the homeowners, likely at their kitchen table just a dozen miles from the registry of deeds, but it was
acknowledged by a notary public 1,800 miles away in Texas via audio-visual means in accordance with the law of that state.

Massachusetts General Laws chapter 183, section 42 allows an acknowledgement made outside of Massachusetts to be done before a justice of the peace or notary public of the state in which the acknowledgement is made but neither MGL c.183, s.42, nor any other Massachusetts statute or decision that I have found specifies whether the validity of the acknowledgement is governed by Massachusetts law or by the law of the place where the acknowledgement was taken.

The Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Law, section 223, states “(1) Whether a conveyance transfers an interest in land and the nature of the interest transferred are determined by the law that would be applied by the courts of the situs; and (2) These courts would usually apply their own local law in determining such questions.” However, this rule is not universal. Comment i. Collateral questions to section 223 of the Restatement says that on matters that are incidental or collateral to the conveyance, the courts of the state where the land is located might apply the law of some other state to resolve the matter. This is especially true “when the concern of that other state in the decision of the particular issue is so great as to outweigh the values of certainty and convenience which would be served by application of the local law of the situs.”

Massachusetts Deed Indexing Standard 2-6 [ ] states “An acknowledgment made outside of the Commonwealth but within any state, territory, district or dependency of the United States, shall be made before: a justice of the peace, notary public, or magistrate of the state in which the acknowledgment is made . . .” This standard assumes that it is the law of the place where the acknowledgement is made that controls its validity. It also delegates to the person accepting the document (the grantee, not the registry) responsibility for determining whether the acknowledgement is valid under the laws of that foreign jurisdiction.  
When the person executing the document and the notary acknowledging the execution of the document were both located outside of Massachusetts, far from the land affected by the document, these presumptions seemed valid. So did the expectation that courts in this Commonwealth would hold that the acknowledgement was collateral to the conveyance of the land and should therefore be assessed in light of the law of the jurisdiction in which the acknowledgement was taken.

However, technology in the form of internet-based audio-visual applications has brought a new twist to this analysis by allowing the person executing the document to be distant from the person taking the acknowledgement. In the case of our Tyngsborough mortgage with the person executing the document being in Massachusetts and the land being in Massachusetts, the use of a foreign notary seems like a kind of forum shopping that implicates the financial interests of the lender more than public policy concerns of the state of Texas. In these circumstances, a Massachusetts court might conclude that any connection between this transaction and the state of Texas was so tenuous that the entire transaction, including the acknowledgement, should be governed by Massachusetts law. Since Massachusetts law makes no provision for remote video acknowledgements, such a finding would invalidate the acknowledgement, the mortgage itself and, if we may be guided by U.S. Bank v Ibanez, 458 Mass. 637 (2011), quite possibly any other document similarly acknowledged. 
Still, before we reflexively shun all out-of-state remote acknowledgements, we should remember that human nature makes us prone to accept the old and familiar and to reject the new and innovative. If the purpose of requiring a real estate document to be acknowledged is to be able to prove that the person who purportedly signed the document did in fact sign it, having a video recording of that act is better evidence than a notary testifying that he has no memory of this particular transaction but always required the person executing the document to be in his presence and to positively identify himself before completing the acknowledgement. In that way, the Texas law may do more to protect the public policy concerns of the Commonwealth than the state’s own notary laws do. 

According to the National Notary Association, 22 states have passed remote video acknowledgement laws. This practice is reaching critical mass across the United States and we here in the Commonwealth can no longer ignore it in the hope that it will just go away. As tempting as it is to urge the state legislature to jump on board the remote notary train without delay, this is a complex area of the law with enormous implications that deserves prompt study and analysis by all concerned as a precondition to legislative action.

Related Articles
Here are links to a couple of my earlier articles that are related to this one:

Electronic Acknowledgements March 9, 2017

A Path to Electronic Acknowledgements July 28, 2017

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


In three recent decisions, abutters or developers were able to prevail over municipalities. The cases are very different, but all involve MGL Chapter 40A.


In 2011, the town of Brookline adopted a “neighborhood conservation district” (“NCD”) bylaw designed to create local
commissions with the ability to regulate the “dimensions, layout, and design of construction” in designated districts. Brookline adopted the bylaw not as an amendment to its zoning bylaw pursuant to G. L. c 40A, or as a historic district bylaw pursuant to G. L. c. 40C, but as a general town bylaw pursuant to its general home rule powers. The Attorney General approved the adoption of the bylaw.

The first district established under the bylaw comprised solely the entire Brookline portion of the 70-acre property of plaintiff Hancock Village I, LLC, who ultimately filed an action in the Permit Session of the Land Court seeking to invalidate both the bylaw authorizing neighborhood conservation districts in the town, as well as the particular section of the bylaw creating the district encompassing the plaintiff's property. In Hancock Vill. I, LLC v. Town of Brookline, 2019 WL 4187764 (Mass. Land Ct. Sept. 4, 2019), the property owner asserted that the bylaw was not a proper exercise of Brookline's general police power, “as its subject matter falls squarely under the purview of G. L. c 40A and G. L. c. 40C, and must therefore have been enacted pursuant to the procedures provided in those statutes, and with the substantive protections and mechanisms required by those statutes.”

The Court agreed with the Plaintiff.  The bylaw attempted to regulate matters that are clearly within the scope of the Zoning Act. For example, a “Reviewable Project” was defined in the Bylaw as including “(i) a change to a building or other structure or part thereof such as removal, construction, reconstruction, restoration, renovation, replication, rehabilitation, addition, partial or total demolition and other similar activities, or the construction of a new building or other structure or part thereof ... (iii) addition or replacement of doors or windows ... (iv) a change to a site that includes constructing, placing, erecting, installing, enlarging, or moving a building or other structure or similar activities; (v) the removal or addition of streets, driveways, parking areas, walkways, or paved surfaces.”

The Bylaw further stated that “[t]he Commission may impose dimensional requirements that further the purposes of the by-law, including without limitation preventing Reviewable Projects inconsistent with the historic or architectural aspects, scale or massing, neighborhood or subdivision plan or layout, circulation patterns, or green space, open space, landscape, vegetation or viewshed character of the NCD.” The Bylaw also sought to regulate building size, height and massing, and required that projects “maintain the spatial organization of the district,” and further required that buildings shall not have a “significant negative impact on historical architectural or landscape elements ...”

The Court stated that “[a] municipality cannot utilize its general police power to enact a bylaw which is, at its essence, a zoning regulation, if it does not resort to G. L. c. 40A; doing so would frustrate the purpose and implementation of the statute. … As previously noted by this court, ‘[t]he reason for this is that zoning bylaws have different, stricter requirements for enactment than general bylaws. A zoning bylaw must be reviewed by the planning board in a public hearing and then reported on by the board, and, crucially, may only be enacted by a two-thirds vote of town meeting. General bylaws have no such requirements—they may be enacted by a majority vote.’” citing Valley Green Grow, Inc. v. Town of Charlton, 27 LCR 99,  at 105 (2019).

“Brookline impermissibly evaded these stricter requirements in a circumstance where they were necessary. Brookline's NCD Bylaw is, in its fundamental substance, a creature of zoning. It regulates subject matter falling within both the traditional definition of zoning as well as the existing purview of the Brookline Zoning Bylaw. Despite this, Brookline enacted the NCD Bylaw as a general town bylaw, and made no attempt to follow the particular procedures laid out in G. L. c. 40A. Accordingly, having failed to strictly comply with the requirements for enactment of a zoning bylaw, Section 5.10 of the Brookline General Bylaws is invalid, and of no force and effect.”

Justice Speicher also found that the NCD Bylaw constituted impermissible spot zoning by concluding that “[t]here is no doubt that Brookline's purpose in adopting the NCD Bylaw and the Hancock Village NCD Bylaw was the same purpose deemed invalid in Scherzer and National Amusements: to frustrate a single property owner's efforts to develop a particular use on its property”


In the case of McLean Hosp. Corp. v. Town of Lincoln, 483 Mass. 215, 131 N.E.3d 240 (2019), McLean Hospital, a non-profit institution, proposed to construct a facility in a residential neighborhood in Lincoln for conducting a residential program for adolescent males with extreme emotional dysregulation. Before McLean purchased the property, they smartly contacted the building commissioner and explained the proposed use and the commissioner agreed (in writing) that the proposed use was an educational use exempt from zoning under the Dover Amendment (MGL Chapter 40A Sec.3).  After the purchase of the property, a number of nearby residents challenged the decision pursuant to MGL Chapter 40A Sec 8 before the Zoning Board. The ZBA decided that the program was medical or therapeutic, not educational. McLean appealed to the Land Court, which determined that the program was not primarily for educational purposes. McLean appealed and the SJC took the case on direct appellate review.

Plaintiff’s counsel did an outstanding job in getting the SJC to understand and appreciate the various details of the proposed program. The Court, in an eleven page decision, described the particular educational aspects of the program. For example, the Court found that “the program teaches students to notice and identify their emotions, to slow down and consider alternatives rather than simply reacting, and to interact constructively with other people. It teaches fundamental behavioral skills so that the students, whose difficulties in emotional regulation interfere with an ability to learn in a more traditional setting, may acquire skills to respond more productively to the challenges that confront them in their day-to-day lives. The goal of the program is to enable the students to return to their communities and their families, to succeed in traditional educational programs, and to become able to lead productive lives.”

The Court explained that the term “educational” as historically used in the Dover Amendment,  is “broad and comprehensive” citing Regis College, 462 Mass. at 285, 968 N.E.2d 347, quoting Mount Hermon Boys' Sch. v. Gill, 145 Mass. 139, 146, 13 N.E. 354 (1887). “Over time, we have made clear that the protections of the Dover Amendment are not to be ‘limited only to those facilities closely analogous to traditional schools and colleges.’[citation omitted] ‘educational’  encompasses that which is ‘the process of developing and training the powers and capabilities of human beings.’ Mount Hermon Boys' Sch., supra. Thus, the Dover Amendment embraces fully “the idea that education is the process of preparing persons for activity and usefulness in life” 

In conclusion the Court, agreed with McLean and stated that “[a] determination whether the land and structures at issue here would be used for a predominantly educational purpose also does not, and should not, turn on an assessment of the population it serves. Although ‘emotional or psychiatric programs may determine the character of the training furnished to residents of the proposed facility,’ they certainly do not mark the facility as ‘medical’ or render it any less educational.”


Finally, I especially enjoyed the drama the played out in Penn vs. Town of Barnstable, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 205, 133 N.E.3d 846 (2019). The Town of Barnstable (a city containing a potpourri of neighborhoods and businesses) in the village of Hyannis, is the departure point of the ferries running to Nantucket. I can testify that historically, there has been a shortage of parking spaces within walking distance for the numerous ferry trips. Consequently, a cottage industry developed. Nearby property owners created parking spaces all over their yards. I spent $10 a day to park on a lawn in November.

The legislative branch of Barnstable is its 13 member elected town council. In 2013 the town conducted a study of commercial parking lots in and around Hyannis Harbor. Shockingly, not all the parking lots had any form of zoning authorization. The town council proposed a zoning amendment to create the Hyannis Parking Overlay District (“HOPD”).  “The overarching purpose of the amendment was to authorize ‘as of right’ operation of commercial parking lots on land within the HPOD that ‘ha[d] some legal pre-existing nonconforming status or [were] licensed as of May 1, 2014 as an open air parking lot involving the temporary storage of vehicles.” 

As required by MGL Chapter 40A Sec. 5, the planning board held a public hearing on the proposal (which voted four to one not to recommend) and on March 24, 2016, the town council took its own vote on the proposal, which on a seven to four vote, failed to pass for a lack of two-thirds support. Undaunted, the town council took the matter up again four (4) months later, notwithstanding the provisions of MGL Chapter 40A Sec 5 which state: “No proposed zoning ordinance or by-law which has been unfavorably acted upon by a city council or town meeting shall be considered by the city council or town meeting within two years after the date of such unfavorable action unless the adoption of such proposed ordinance or by-law is recommended in the final report of the planning board.”

Some minor modifications were made to the proposed bylaw, the planning board and the city council held a joint public hearing, and the planning board voted three to two to recommend approval, but the planning board failed to prepare a written report with recommendations (as required by the statute). The town council thought it was in the clear by first voting eleven to two that the new bylaw was “not a proposed zoning ordinance which has been previously acted upon unfavorably by the [t]own [c]ouncil”. A cynic might call that vote “somewhat self-serving.” Finally, the council adopted the slightly amended bylaw by a vote of eleven to two. 

Owners of homes adjacent to some of the parking lots included in the HPOD, filed a complaint for declaratory relief in the Land Court challenging the town council's adoption of the bylaw, on numerous grounds, including that it was invalid for failure to comply with the procedural requirements of MGL Chapter 40A Sec. 5. Item No. 2016-166. The judge allowed the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, and ultimately the town appealed.

The Appeals Court opined that “[t]he purpose of the two-year bar is to give some measure of finality to unfavorable action taken by a municipal legislative body so that ‘members of the public shall be able to ascertain the legislative status of a proposed change at all times, and to rely on unfavorable action ... as a complete defeat of the proposal.’ Kitty v. Springfield, 343 Mass. 321, 326, 178 N.E.2d 580 (1961) (discussing predecessor statute).”

“In Kitty the Supreme Judicial Court construed the two-year bar to apply to ‘any new action of the same character’ as a previously defeated proposal.  While no reported decision has addressed what it means for proposals to be ‘of the same character’ for purposes of G. L. c. 40A, § 5, sixth par., we are guided by cases decided in two analogous contexts.” The Court discussed cases pertaining to notice requirements in municipal hearing settings, and cases pertaining to initiative petitions,  and found that in those situations the courts have construed such provisions to “bar any measure that ‘affirms or negates essentially the same provisions [as a previous measure], with little or no substantive difference.’” 

Finally, the Court, using the analogous cases as guidance, concluded that the proposed bylaws shared “the same fundamental or essential character, with little substantive difference”, and concluded that the enactment of the bylaw was barred by the two-year prohibition contained in Section 5.

A former REBA president, Paul Alphen currently serves on the association’s executive committee and co-chairs the long-range planning committee.  He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Abstract Club. He is a partner in the Westford firm of Alphen & Santos, P.C. and concentrates in residential and commercial real estate development, land use regulation, administrative law, real estate transactional practice and title examination .As entertaining as he finds the practice of law, Paul enjoys numerous hobbies, including messing around with his power boats and fulfilling his bucket list of visiting every Major League ballpark.  Paul can be contacted at

Friday, January 3, 2020

Home Rule Meets Climate Change: New Wetlands Ordinance in Boston

On December 23, 2019, the City of Boston joined the almost two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities in having more
stringent requirements for work in and near wetlands, waterbodies, and floodplains.  Unlike many of those other municipalities, the explicit purpose of Boston’s wetlands ordinance is to address climate change, through adaptation and building resiliency.

A municipality has the power to enact a wetland ordinance (in a city) or bylaw (in a town) under its Home Rule authority, under the Home Rule Amendment to the state Constitution, as long as the provisions are more stringent than the state Wetlands Protection Act, G.L. c. 131, § 40  (WPA).  The Mayor of Boston signed this one December 23.

Being more stringent often includes regulating a greater geographic area than the WPA.  Like many other communities, Boston’s new ordinance regulates work proposed in isolated wetlands and vernal pools while treating the 100-foot Buffer Zone as its own wetland resource area. 

Boston in its new ordinance creates some new resource areas reflecting its concerns about climate change, including what are termed Inland and Coastal Flood Resilience Zones.  The Boston Conservation Commission is given the task of delineating them.  

Specifically, the Coastal Flood Resilience Zone, or CFRZ, is “the area of land beyond the current boundary of land subject to coastal storm flowage [100-year flood plain] or land subject to tidal action that the Commission determines has a reasonable probability of becoming subject to future coastal storm flowage or tidal action due to sea level rise (SLR) within approximately the next 50 years.”

The Commission is empowered to delineate the CFRZ on maps published after public hearing and comment.  The Commission can divide the CFRZ into sub-zones with different regulatory requirements. 

Similarly, the Inland Flood Resilience Zone or IFRZ, is “the area of land beyond the current boundary of land subject to flooding [caused by the 1%-chance storm] that the Commission determines has a reasonable probability of flooding as the strength, duration or frequency of precipitation events increase within approximately the next 50 years.”

Likewise, the IFRZ is to be delineated on maps published by the Commission and shall be consistent with other climate change planning documents used by other City officials.

The Commission also is given the authority to designate “Extended Riverfront Areas”, which enlarges to 200 feet the otherwise 25-foot wide Riverfront Area; the WPA sets a 25-foot wide Riverfront Area for several specified large cities and densely developed areas.

Procedurally, the Commission must “explicitly consider climate change resilience and impacts” in its decision to approve or deny a permit, by measuring the potential adverse impacts to wetland resource areas both as they currently exist and as are reasonably expected to exist “based on the best available data on the projected impacts of climate change.” 

The Commission is cautioned, however, not to use its newfound authority “to prevent beneficial projects whose primary purpose is protection of resource areas and reduction of risk from coastal flooding, inland flooding, extreme weather, sea level rise and other adverse impacts of climate change.”  The Commission can enact procedures to advance and expedite such projects.

Applicants before the Commission are to integrate climate change and adaptation planning considerations into their project to promote climate change resilience and promote resource area values.  Considerations include sea level rise, increased heat waves, extreme precipitation events, stormwater runoff, changing precipitation patterns and changes in coastal and stormwater flooding.   

Within the climate change planning considerations, the Commission may, through regulations or guidelines, require an applicant to address climate equity and environmental justice.

All eyes now turn from the City Council and Mayor to the Conservation Commission to see how it implements its many duties and opportunities under this wetlands protection ordinance, in new maps and regulations as well as permit-by-permit.

Boston’s new “Wetlands Protection and Climate Adaptation” ordinance can be found here in Section 7-1.4 of Chapter VII of the City’s Ordinances.  Here’s a link to the Mayor’s page concerning its enactment

A member of the Association’s environmental law section, Nathaniel Stevens practices with the Boston firm of McGregor & Legere, P.C.  He represents clients with environmental issues including permitting, development, contamination, transactions, conservation, real estate restrictions, underground tanks, water supply, water pollution, subdivision control, tidelands licensing, Boston and state zoning, coastal and inland wetlands, stormwater, air pollution, and energy facility siting.  Nathaniel can be contacted by email at

Thursday, December 19, 2019


In recent years, mixed-use condominiums have become an important part of the Greater Boston-area urban and suburban
landscape. Unlike a residential or a commercial condominium, a mixed-use condominium consists of both commercial and residential units which may be located within the same building or as separate buildings. One example is the Millenium Tower in Boston’s Financial District, which comprises a 60-story building with restaurants and a grocery store in the lower floors and residential units in the remainder of the building.  Another example of a mixed-use condominium is the Maynard Crossing development in Maynard, Massachusetts, which will consist of a mix of retail, office, restaurant, supermarket and residential buildings.

The co-existence of residential and commercial units in a mixed-use condominium presents a unique challenge and opportunity when drafting the governing documents.
At minimum, a zoning/permitting analysis is essential before creating the mixed-use condominium. A preliminary review of the zoning ordinances or zoning by-laws should guide the scope and definitions of the use clause in the Master Deed.  Frequently, permits from the local zoning board are required and must be obtained before the development and construction can commence. 

The intended use of the commercial units must be described narrowly and in detail.  For example, the Master Deed could provide that the commercial units may be used for any lawful retail or office purpose, but not such uses that could adversely affect the residential units, such as a pet store.

Likewise, the use of the residential units must be covered separately.  Their use should be limited to residential purposes and perhaps a home office.  The home office should be limited to an accessory or ancillary use, subject to zoning and ordinance laws, with limited, both in time and frequency, foot traffic from clients and other business invitees.

A major issue in mixed-use condominiums is the tension between residential unit versus commercial unit owners in such matters as use, control, insurance, maintenance and repairs, and allocation of common area expenses.  The Master Deed, Trust, By-Laws and Rules and Regulations must address, and, when possible, provide concrete resolution mechanisms for such concerns.

The Condominium Trust should provide for both residential unit owner trustees and commercial unit owner trustees.  Two ways to accommodate and diffuse potential tension in joint governance are: 1) proportionate representation and/or 2) bifurcation of exclusive authority. In a building which predominantly consists of residential units, there could be more Residential Trustees than Commercial Trustees or vice versa.  The Residential Trustee(s) can be given the authority to act without the concurrence of the Commercial Trustees on those matters reserved in the Master Deed solely for decision by the Residential Trustees.  Likewise, the Commercial Trustee (s) could be given the authority to act without the concurrence of the Residential Trustees on those matters reserved in the Master Deed solely for decision by the Commercial Trustees.

The limited common areas or exclusive use areas of mixed-use condominiums must be defined clearly.  The limited common areas of the commercial units are different from the limited common areas of the residential units.  The limited common areas of the commercial units can be referred to as Limited Commercial Common Areas.  These would include exterior equipment, pipes and other facilities serving only the commercial units.

The limited common areas of the residential units consist of areas that serve only the residential units, e.g. entrances, stairways, patios, and lobbies. In addition, there will be common areas that serve the entire building or buildings, such as the garage of the building or an exterior parking lot.

Because there are common areas, limited residential common areas and limited commercial common areas, the Condominium Trust should provide for three budgets and the Condominium Trustees need the authority to create and adjust these budgets.

In a mixed-use condominium, percentage interests should be provided as follows:
  • The proportionate interest of a unit in the common areas;
  • The proportionate interest of a unit in the limited residential common areas; and
  • The proportionate interest of a unit in the limited commercial common areas.

All units, residential and commercial, have a percentage interest in the common areas.  Only the residential units have a percentage interest in the limited residential common area.  Only the commercial units have a percentage interest in the limited commercial common areas.

The Massachusetts Condominium Statute, Chapter 183A, does not address the mixed-use form of condominium ownership.  Its hybrid structure is a creative and instrumental tool in reviving business and residential districts. In addition to permitting, financing, construction and marketing, carefully drafted governing documents play a crucial role in making this form of development and ownership a success.

Co-chair of REBA’s Condominium Law and Practice Section, Angel Kozeli Mozina is a director at Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, P.C. where she represents developers, lenders, borrowers, management companies, condominium associations, owners and tenants in a broad range of real estate and corporate matters.  Angel can be contacted by email at

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


No permit is required under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) for the discharge of pollutants to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to navigable waters of the United States.  That is the upshot of the federal District Court’s recent ruling in the case of Conservation Law Foundation, Inc. v. Longwood Venues & Destinations, Inc., et. al., Docket No. 18-11821-WGY (D. Mass. November 26, 2019).  

Judge William G. Young accepted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) interpretation of the CWA as conferring no authority to regulate discharges to groundwater, regardless whether pollutants therein reach navigable waters of the United States.  This appears to be the first time a federal court has ruled on this question since the EPA issued its Interpretive Statement on Application of the Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Program to Releases of Pollutants from a Point Source to Groundwater, 84 Fed. Reg. 16,810 (April 23, 2019), which Judge Young determined to be a “permissible construction” of the statute.  The EPA’s policy statement will be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 122.

The facts are as follows. Defendants own and operate the Wychmere Beach Club, a seasonal resort complex on Cape Cod.  The club’s sewage is treated on-site, at a private wastewater treatment facility designed with a capacity of 40,000 gallons per day. The facility’s 22 leach pits sit within 100 and 500 feet of Wychmere Harbor and a narrow channel linking it to Nantucket Sound.  The defendants’ treated wastewater leaches from these pits to the groundwater, which flows toward the Harbor and channel.  

The defendants had received an Individual Groundwater Discharge Permit from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) – and apparently routinely violated that permit’s condition limiting the concentration of Total Nitrogen in Defendants’ effluent to 10 milligrams per liter – but had no National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from EPA.  MassDEP’s February 2016 Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) calculation for Wychmere Harbor reflected “excessive nitrogen” levels, with 2-3 percent of that nitrogen (0.066 kilograms per day) attributable to the club.  

Plaintiff Conservation Law Foundation, Inc. (CLF) sued the defendants under the CWA’s citizen suit provision, alleging unauthorized discharge of pollutants (primarily nitrogen) to the waters of the United States, and failure to obtain a NPDES permit.  The defendants argued that their wastewater treatment facility and/or leach pits are not a “point source” under the CWA, and that discharges to groundwater are beyond the scope of the CWA, even if the pollutants discharged to groundwater ultimately reach navigable waters. 

The district court rejected the defendants’ first argument, finding that the club’s leach pits are point sources under the CWA because they convey wastewater from the facility to groundwater, and the rate of nitrogen discharge “is measurable to a high degree of accuracy”.  These facts led the court to distinguish the wastewater treatment facility and/or its leach pits from other features – like landfill and settling ponds – previously determined by other courts not to qualify as point sources under the CWA.

The court awarded the defendants summary judgment on the second argument, however, following “EPA’s interpretation and hold[ing] that discharges into groundwater are categorically excluded from the CWA’s regulatory regime, irrespective of any hydrologically connection to navigable waters.”  
In reaching this decision, Judge Young “afford[ed] Chevron deference to the agency’s interpretation” of the CWA due to the “apparent ambiguity in the statutory scheme as it relates to unpermitted discharges of pollutants into groundwater that is hydrologically connected to navigable waters.”  Readers may recognize Judge Young’s reference to the  U.S. Supreme Court case of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., (1984), which established that where a statute “is ambiguous on the precise question before the court, it is for the administering agency to supply a reasonable construction.”  

The court began by finding that the CWA is ambiguous on the issue presented, pointing to the statute’s lack of any “limiting principle” (noting that CLF’s interpretation of the CWA could “menace … millions of homeowners with stiff penalties” and/or “criminal prosecution … for flushing their toilets without a federal permit”), structure and legislative history (which “persuasively show that Congress deliberately opted to leave groundwater protection to the states under the CWA”), and balance between federal and state regulatory authority in eliminating water pollution.  

Judge Young then confirmed that Chevron governed the case before him, and that EPA’s Interpretative Statement was entitled to deference, because in his view Congress intended and would expect a reviewing court to defer to EPA’s interpretation of this aspect of the CWA.  He stressed that “EPA strongly suggests that it sees its [Interpretative Statement] as operating within Chevron … and may therefore override contrary judicial decisions in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits.”

Turning to the substance of the Interpretative Statement, the court determined that EPA had reasonably interpreted the CWA as leaving the regulation of discharges to groundwater to the states.  Where “EPA has apparently determined that navigable waters may adequately be protected without regulating any groundwater discharges under the CWA”, the “Court has no business second-guessing the agency’s professional assessment of on-the-ground environmental or regulatory needs.”

The court’s decision highlights the Circuit Court split on this question.  Specifically, the Fourth and Ninth Circuits have held that the CWA does require a permit for discharges of pollutants to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to navigable waters of the United States.  Meanwhile, the Sixth Circuit has ruled that the CWA does not require a permit for discharges that pass through non-point sources, including groundwater, before reaching navigable waters.

Stay tuned for the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance on this issue of whether the CWA regulates point source discharges into groundwater that is hydrologically connected to navigable waters.  That is expected in a forthcoming decision on the case of County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, for which the Justices heard oral arguments in November 2019.  

Luke Legere is a partner with McGregor & Legere, P.C. in Boston. Since joining the firm in 2005, he has helped clients with a broad range of environmental, land use, and real estate issues including coastal and inland wetlands and waterways, zoning, subdivision, development agreements, conservation restrictions, state and local enforcement actions, stormwater, solid waste, hazardous solid waste, air pollution, site remediation, regulatory takings, affordable housing, and energy facility siting. Luke can be contacted by email at 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

No Marshing-Around: Land Court Decision Traces Ownership of Mashpee Marshlands Back to the 1800’s.

By: Shannon F. Slaughter

The Land Court issued a decision in October (the “Decision”), after holding a bench trial to determine the ownership of the area between the mean high water mark (the line of the "upland") and
the mean low water mark (where the law deems the sea to begin) on a section of the perimeter of the Punkhorn Point peninsula, near Gooseberry Island, on the coast of Mashpee. The Plaintiffs in the case, Robert and Michelle Wolpe and James Atkins and John Weltman, own vacation homes at 80 Punkhorn Point Road (the “Atkins/Weltman Upland”) and 84 Punkhorn Point Road (the “Wolpe Upland”). Additionally, the Town of Mashpee claimed ownership of the marsh adjacent to upland owned by the Town (“Town Upland”). The Defendant, Matthew Haney as Trustee of SN Trust (“SN Trust”) claimed ownership of the marsh adjacent to the Wolpe Upland and the Atkins/Weltman Upland, and the marsh extending somewhat further south. See infra, Decision Sketch (additional notations added).

As Judge Long noted in the Decision: “precisely who owns the marsh, and where, is highly significant. For the Wolpes, Mr. Atkins, and Mr. Weltman, owning (or not owning) the marshland directly abutting their vacation houses is the difference between having waterfront homes with full access and rights to the waterside, and homes with no such rights. For [SN] Trust—which, in addition to its mainland claims, is the owner of Gooseberry Island just offshore— it is the difference between being able to build a house on that Island and not being able to do so, because only by owning the strip on the mainland at the end of Punkhorn Point Road will it have a place from which to construct a connecting bridge.”

The first task presented to the Court was determination of the record owner(s) of the marshlands in question. This required the Court and the parties to travel back in time to the late 1800s. A number of legislative acts in the late 1800s authorized the Barnstable Superior Court to appoint three Commissioners to make set-offs of certain land in Mashpee that was owned communally by the Mashpee (formerly known as Marshpee) Wompanoag Tribe. The set-offs by the Commissioners allowed individual members of the Tribe to own the parcels individually.
The first lands legislatively authorized to be set-off were uplands. A map of the uplands was created in 1877 by one of the Commissioners, Cyrus Cahoon, who was a surveyor (the “1877 Map”). Several years after the uplands were set-off, the legislature granted the same three Commissioners the authority to set-off marshlands. Both the upland and marshland set-offs were confirmed by orders of the Barnstable Superior Court. Thus, the Land Court’s analysis of the true record owner of the marshlands in question began with the set-offs in the late 1800s and the Court disregarded any subsequent deeds or plans that could not be traced back to the original set-offs as land grabs.

The marshlands in question involved three specific marshland set-offs: (1) “Old Division Lot 16,” located on the mainland, was partitioned to members of the Pocknet family; (2) “Old Division Lot 17,” located partially on the mainland and the remainder surrounding Gooseberry Island, was partitioned to the Coombs family; and (3) “Old Division Lot 18,” located on the mainland, was partitioned to the Mingo family. It was undisputed at trial that the Plaintiffs own record title to the majority of Old Division Lot 16, Defendant owns record title to Old Division Lot 17, and the Town owns title to Old Division Lot 18.

Unlike the 1877 Map of the uplands, a map of these marsh set-offs could not be located (although the Court found that such a map was likely created contemporaneously with the marsh set-offs). Thus, the second task presented to the Court was to determine where Old Division Lots 16, 17 and 18 are presently located on the ground. In order to do so, the Court analyzed the specific descriptions used by the Commissioners in the marsh set-offs, which he found were “carefully chosen references in light of (1) the commissioners' awareness of the Legislature's command that the set-offs be "properly describe[d] ... in writing," (2) their professional occupations (one a surveyor, another an attorney) that accustomed them to the need and practice of clear and precise language when drafting, and (3) their knowledge that the set­offs would be reviewed and ultimately approved by the Barnstable Superior Court, where clarity was essential.”

Critically, the Old Division Lot 16 marsh set-off was described as being bounded to the west by the “upland of the Homestead Lot of Elijah W. Pocknet" (the location of which was shown on the 1877 Map) and bounded on the east by the Mashpee River. In contrast, the Old Division Lot 17 marsh set-off was bounded on the west by "upland belonging to Elijah W. Pocknet" (the location of which was shown on the 1877 Map) and bounded on the east by Popponesset Bay. Finally, the Old Division Lot 18 set-off was described as being bounded on the west by "land belonging to Elijah W. Pocknet," and bounded on the east by Ockway Bay. The distinctions in these descriptions were critical in the Court’s determination that Old Division Lot 17 (owned by SN Trust) was located adjacent to the Wolpe Upland and the Atkins/Weltman Upland and extended south of Punkhorn Point Road.

Having determined that SN Trust owned the marshes at issue, the final issue presented to the Court was determination of whether Plaintiffs established adverse possession or adverse possession by color of title to the marshlands. To succeed on an adverse possession by color of title claim, a claimant must prove the following: (1) the claimant's deed must facially include the land adversely claimed, (2) the deed must be recorded and have been on record for  twenty  years  or more  prior  to the filing of the lawsuit or other interruption of the claim (the "adverse possession  period"), (3) the claimant must have actually, openly, notoriously, exclusively, and adversely possessed at least a part of the land for that continuous, uninterrupted twenty years, and (4) if the claimant's own deed and acts of adverse  possession  are insufficient  to meet  the twenty­year period, he may "tack" onto the deeds and adverse acts of his predecessors in title during that period if (a) there was  no interruption  between  their  deeds and  adverse  acts and his, and (b) their deeds were also  recorded  and  included  the land.  See Dow v. Dow,  243 Mass. 587, 590 (1923); Nantucket, 271 Mass. 62, 68 (1930); Norton v. West, 8 Mass. App. Ct. 348, 351-352 (1979); Long v. Wickett, 50 Mass. App. Ct. 380, 382 n.3 (2000).

The adverse possession standard applicable to wild and uncultivated lands applied to Plaintiffs’ claims of adverse possession given the nature of the marshlands and a "pronounced" and continuous occupation was needed in order to prove their claims. Peck v. Bigelow, 34 Mass. App. Ct. 551, 556 (1993). Like all cases involving adverse possession, the Court’s analysis was fact specific: The land at issue “is salt marsh, covered in tall grass, deep mud, and completely under water at high tide. It is unsuitable for use as a beach (too silted and muddy) and, so far as the record shows, has never been used as a beach or for any recreational purpose other than fishing or crabbing. People do not walk on it idly or for pleasure. During the entirety of the view, which took place at mid-day, the area in front of the plaintiffs' homes was muddy, under water, and un-walkable. […] [A]ny activities on it, of any kind, were few and far between. It was not a place for use. Rather, it was something that was looked at, and which viewers looked over, as they watched sunrises, bird migrations, and boats in Popponesset Bay.” 

The Court found that Atkins/Weltman failed to establish adverse possession or adverse possession by color of title over any portion of the marsh. The Wolpes, however, gained adverse possession over an area where their predecessors constructed a wooden walkway, which is in the same location where the Wolpe’s current dock is located. This wooden walkway was constructed sometime in the 1950’s and went into disrepair in the 1980s. The construction and maintenance of this walkway, the Court found, was such a pronounced occupation to constitute adverse possession over the marshlands and the Wolpe’s predecessors used the wooden walkway openly, notorious, adversely and continuously for at least twenty years.

The wooden walkway did not support the Wolpe’s claim of adverse possession by color of title. The wooden walkway began on the Wolpe upland and extended over the marsh adjacent to the Atkins/Weltman Upland, not the marsh adjacent to the Wolpe Upland that they were claiming under the theory of adverse possession by color of title. Therefore, the plans of record on which the Wolpes relied to claim ownership of the marsh adjacent to the Wolpe Upland did not include any portion of the marsh that had actually been adversely possessed—only the area where the wooden walkway was located (the marsh adjacent to the Atkins/Weltman Upland) was adversely possessed. Therefore, the Court held that the Wolpes had adverse possession of the area over which the wooden walkway was located (where the Wolpes’ dock now stands), but not to any other portion of the marshlands at issue.

Notably, the Court noted that there was testimony regarding children walking along the neighboring upland and occasionally going into the marsh to play, but those activities could not establish adverse possession as use by children, alone, cannot reasonably be seen as associated with a claim of ownership. “[N]o reasonable view of adverse possession considers young children, playing on their own, to be either adverse claimants or agents of such claimants whom a landowner is forced to chase away on peril of losing his land. The law is many things, but it does not require people to be mean to children. Children fall into the category of those to whom implied permission is deemed to have been given.” The children did not stay long in the marsh. They did not build anything there. They were interested in exploring for fish, marine life, and the like, all of which were within their public rights to do under the Colonial Ordinance. In other words, marsh-ing around by children who were playing by themselves cannot support a claim of adverse possession.

Shannon Slaughter, a partner at Dalton & Finegold LLP, tried the foregoing cases, Land Court Docket Nos. 14 MISC. 487495 and 14 MISC. 486868 (KCL), in 2017 with Edward Englander of Englander and Chicoine, P.C. Shannon Slaughter’s practice focuses resolving real estate and land use disputes, including real estate acquisition and complex title litigation, prescriptive easements and adverse possession claims, determination of ownership of tidelands, zoning and subdivision litigation, construction defects, fraudulent title and conveyances, and condominium disputes.  She can be reached by email at