Another recent Supreme Judicial Court decision, Gentili v. Town of Sturbridge, sheds light on the distinction between a municipality’s acquisition of property rights through prescription or adverse possession and those taken for public use under the eminent domain statute, M.G.L. c. 79. In 2015 the Gentili plaintiffs brought an action in the Land Court which resulted in a judgment that the Town of Sturbridge had acquired a prescriptive easement to discharge water through a Town-owned culvert onto the plaintiffs’ property. Rather than appealing the Land Court judgment, the property owners brought a separate action in the Superior Court asserting that the Town’s prescriptive easement amounts to a taking for which the Town must pay compensation. The Superior Court concluded that the plaintiffs were not entitled to compensation and the plaintiffs appealed.
It is well established that the taking of private property for a public purpose requires just compensation to be paid to the landowner. It is also a familiar principle that the continuous, adverse use of another’s property for a prescribed period of time—in Massachusetts, 20 years—will result in the adverse party’s owning property rights consistent with the scope of that adverse use. The interesting question posed by the plaintiffs in Gentili is whether prescriptive rights obtained by a municipality, and therefore serving a public purpose, are so akin to a taking that the burdened property owner is entitled to compensation.
The SJC’s answer is no. The distinction is that the Town’s rights were acquired as a result of the prolonged inaction of the plaintiffs. The Court’s conclusion is grounded in the proposition that an “action seeking a declaration of title by adverse possession simply effectuates the statute of limitations applicable to an action for recovery of land under G.L. c.260, §21.” Sea Pines Condo. III Ass'n v. Steffens, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 838, 844 n.14 (2004). The plaintiffs could have sought compensation or demanded the Town discontinue its adverse use within the twenty-year time frame. Instead, the plaintiffs sat on their rights for too long and they were extinguished.
This decision does not suggest that land can be taken for public purposes without compensation, but rather, serves as a reminder that municipalities are afforded the same opportunity to obtain prescriptive rights as private individuals.