Massachusetts law about beach rights

Laws, regulations, cases, and web sources on beach rights law.

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Best bet

Footprints in the sand: Massachusetts beach access law by Richard D. Vetstein, 2012.
Succinctly explains what is considered trespassing on "private beaches" in Massachusetts, and discusses limited public access for fishing, fowling, and navigation.

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."

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; notice; penalty
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.

MGL c. 183, § 58 Real estate abutting a way, watercourse, wall, fence, or other monument
The "Derelict Fee Statute". Any instrument passing title to registered land abutting a "way" includes any fee interest (legal possession) the grantor had in that way unless the instrument expressly states otherwise. 

Selected cases

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, the page Disability rights for users of assistance animals, by the Mass. Office on Disability, 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.”

Court applies Derelict Fee Statute to beach access dispute, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, July 21, 2023.
The Appeals Court has found that the Derelict Fee Statute gives owners of a beachfront parcel a fee interest in a strip of registered land abutting their property and providing beach access to others even though their title did not specifically reference the strip or its ownership.

CZM coastal public access maps and data, Mass. Office of Coastal Zone Management.
In order to help the public get to and enjoy the coast, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) develops maps of public access sites along the Commonwealth’s coast.

A history of Massachusetts' peculiar beach access laws, Pioneer Institute.
State's intertidal zones are awash in Puritan law and lack of clarity, an overview of the history of beach rights 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-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.

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Last updated: April 4, 2024

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