Massachusetts laws

Colonial ordinances of 1641-1647 Extended private ownership from the mean high water line to the mean low-water line, or 100 rods from the mean high-water line, whichever is less. Previously, ownership had extended only to the high-water mark (under section 16 of the Body of Liberties of 1641).

MGL c.91 Waterways. Section 1 maintains the historical right of access to fish or fowl, defining "Private tidelands'', as "tidelands held by a private party subject to an easement of the public for the purposes of navigation and free fishing and fowling and of passing freely over and through the water."

MGL c.91 § 30 Removal of gravel, sand, stones, etc. from beaches that the department deems harmful to the beach can result in a warning followed by a penalty if removal continues.  

MGL c.130 § 32 Fishing gear swept ashore; recovery.  The owner of any fishing gear which is swept ashore by storm or tide or other natural causes and deposited upon the shore, beaches or flats, whether public or private, may recover the same within thirty days from the time of such deposit without liability for trespass.   

Selected cases

Arno v. Commonwealth, 457 Mass. 434 (2010)
After registration, the landowner had fee simple title to any portion of his property that once was submerged tidelands, subject to a condition subsequent that his parcel be used for a public purpose, and fee simple title in any historical tidal flats, subject to an easement of the public.

Boston Waterfront Dev. Corp. v. Commonwealth, 378 Mass. 629 (1979)
Provides "a comprehensive overview of the history of Massachusetts tideland law."

Commonwealth v. Alger, 61 Mass. 53 (1851)
Called by the Supreme Judicial Court "probably the leading case on the subject."

Commonwealth v. City of Roxbury, 75 Mass. 451 (1857)
Explains at great length and in great detail the origins of and changes to property rights along the shore

Houghton v. Johnson, 71 Mass.App.Ct. 825 (2008)
Details the requirements for prescriptive easements over beachfront property.

Loiselle v. Hickey, 93 Mass. App. Ct. 644 (2018)
"The general rule is that any easement burdening registered land must be shown on the certificate of title.... Although title to the upland portion of shoreland property can be severed from the title to the flats, this generally must be done expressly, that is, through the use of "excluding words." ... Otherwise, the owners of shoreland property are presumed to own the fee in the adjacent flats."

Mazzola v. O’Brien, 100 Mass. App. Ct. 424 (2021)
Clarifies that an all-terrain vehicle owner who has an easement to get to the beach has the right to cross the adjoining landowner’s property via the easement.

Navy Yard Four Associates v. Department of Environmental Protection, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 213 (2015) 
Court upheld the validity of agency's definition of Commonwealth tidelands to include both submerged lands and tidal flats.

Opinion of the Justices to the House of Representatives, 365 Mass. 681 (1974)
In disapproving a proposed bill to allow walking along private beaches, court provides a clear summary of the law.

Spillane v. Adams, 76 Mass.App.Ct. 378 (2010)
Standard for low-water mark. "No definitive standard for tidal marks has been adopted in our appellate case law, and we take this opportunity to do so. The appropriate standard for low water mark is the 'mean low water' as determined by the NGVD."

Storer v. Freeman, 6 Mass. 435 (1810)
Explains the change in the law from low-water mark to high-water mark in 1641-47.

Web sources

Bring your dog to the beach the coast-friendly way, Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management outlines the best way to bring dogs to the beach and what etiquettes to follow. Regarding service dogs,’s about service and assistance animals page states that as long as service animals are under the handler’s control (harnessed or leashed), they “are permitted to go wherever their handler is permitted to go.”

Footprints in the sand: Massachusetts beach access law, 2012
Attorney Richard D. Vetstein "tells us what is considered trespassing on 'Private Beaches' in Massachusetts."

Massachusetts town has approved fining people who pilfer beach rocks, NBC Boston, May 14, 2019.
The Town of Westport has approved a bylaw that will impose a fine of $250 on anyone who takes rocks or vegetation from beaches owned by the town. This bylaw is meant to deter landscapers from taking buckets of rocks.

Public access to Buzzards Bay and its shore, Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program
Helpful site for information regarding "public beaches", high water mark, low water mark, and more for Cape Cod.

Public rights along the shoreline, Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management
Describes the historic ownership of tidelands and the scope of public rights. It says, in part, "Over the years, Massachusetts courts have ruled that the scope of activities on private tidelands covered by the reserved public rights of fishing, fowling, and navigation is broad, and includes all of their 'natural derivatives.'" It then goes on to delineate those "derivatives."

Public rights-private property: FAQ on beach access, Cape Cod Home Finder
This is actually a pamphlet that a former Attorney General had put out, reproduced on this site without attribution. Despite that, the information given is sound and extremely helpful.

Print sources

Common and complex waterfront property issues, MCLE, 2014. 
Includes: Technical aspects of determining waterfront property lines and boundaries, a summary of law governing the loss of title to beach due to erosion or submersion, and waterfront property issues.

Municipal law and practice, (Mass. practice v. 18A), 5th ed., West, Section 20.11 Public trust doctrine;  Section 20.12 Ocean management, coastal zone and waterways.

Preserving historic rights of way to the sea, 2nd ed., Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management, 1999. 
A handbook about reclaiming public access to beaches in Massachusetts. Although this was published in 1999, it is still relevant to current rules and regulations. Be sure to double check citations to ensure cited laws are still correct. Click here to access online

Real estate law with forms, (Mass. practice v. 28), West, annual edition, chapter 8, section 8:55  Tidelands.  A short history of tidal ownership since the colonial period.

Solving waterfront property disputes, MCLE, 2008. 
Includes: Water boundary fundamentals, Mapping littoral boundaries, Municipal issues and concerns regarding waterfront issues, A summary of law governing the loss of or gain of title to beach due to erosion, Property rights in inland waters, Waterfront property rights and environmental issues, Litigation of waterfront property rights, The new ocean management plan law, Select deeds from Crocker's Notes on Common Forms, and Presumed historic high- and low-water marks.


Last updated: September 23, 2022