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Commonwealth Ownership Doesn’t Interrupt Adverse Possession Clock

Does the Commonwealth’s ownership of land prevent the requisite 20-year period for an adverse possession claim from commencing? Today, in 1148 Davol Street LLC v. Mechanic’s Mill One LLC, the Appeals Court held that G.L. c. 260, § 31 does not prevent the clock from running for the purpose of adverse possession in these circumstances.

The plaintiff brought suit seeking title to a strip of the defendant’s property by adverse possession.  The parties agreed that the nature of the plaintiff’s use of the land generally was sufficient to establish title by adverse possession, and the plaintiff alleged adverse use between 1975 and 2007 – more than the required 20 years.  The only contested issue was whether “the plaintiff may count the time during which title to the land was held by one of the defendant’s predecessors-in-title, the city of Fall River (city), toward the requisite twenty-year period of continuous adverse use.”

The defendant took the position that the adverse possession claim could not begin to run until a private party took ownership of the property at issue, which in this case occurred in 1989.  The Appeals Court recognized that under the common law, a party claiming adverse possession could not count the time title to the land was held by the Commonwealth towards the applicable limitations period.  However, Massachusetts has explicitly departed from the common law rule by statute, the current version being G.L. c. 260, § 31.

As the Appeals Court stated:

“While the 1987 amendment undeniably added broad protections allowing the Commonwealth and its subdivisions to recover land held for public purposes, nothing in the statute evinces an intent that such protections also benefit a subsequent private owner.”

This is a logical and practical reading of the statute, which clearly only provides extended time for recovery of land to the Commonwealth, and only for land “held for conservation, open space, parks, recreation, water protection, wildlife protection or other public purpose.”  The public policy reasons behind this extension of time simply do not apply in a dispute between private landowners.

The Appeals Court therefore affirmed the holding of the Superior Court that G.L. c. 260, § 31 does not prevent an adverse possession claim against land that was held by the Commonwealth or its subdivisions at some time during the statutory 20-year period.

Decision here.