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When Rocks Do Not Make an Island

The Land Court recently had the enviable task of determining whether a collection of rocks in the Boston harbor was included within the Town of Hull’s historical jurisdiction over certain of the harbor islands. The question was presented by the owner of Graves Ledge in the case Graves Light and Fog Station, LLC v. Town of Hull. The Graves Ledge is a rocky outpost in Massachusetts Bay that is home to Graves Light. The owner, who purchased the property and lighthouse from the federal government, has put significant money into restoring the lighthouse. Those of you on Facebook can view his restoration efforts. Several years ago, the Town of Hull asserted that the ledge fell within its jurisdiction. After a trial and a view of the site, the Land Court disagreed, holding that the ledge does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Town. The owner of Graves Light therefore was not required to pay taxes to the Town.

To reach this decision, the judge “took a view” of Graves Ledge. “[T]he court traveled by boat from a wharf maintained by the New England Aquarium, proceeding eastward through the inner harbor, by the north side of Thompson Island, Spectacle Island, and Long Island, in turn. The boat then continued eastward toward the outer harbor, passing to the north of Lovell Island and the Brewster Islands (Great Brewster, Middle Brewster, Outer Brewster, Calf Island, Little Calf Island, and Green Island) and then passing to the north of a rocky outcropping called the Roaring Bulls. Travelling further eastward toward the open ocean, the boat traveled around Graves Ledge before turning southward and proceeding back to Long Wharf.” The Court also traveled through the historical record, considering evidence as far back as 1641 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony Court granted “the Iland (sic) called Pedocks Iland (sic), & the other ilands (sic) there not otherwise disposed of” to “Nantaskot” (later Hull).

The Court found that all evidence indicated that Graves Ledge had been for most of its history only an uninhabitable collection of rocks, until Graves Light was constructed in 1905. Further, this collection of rocks was not included in the colonial government’s conferral of the Brewster Islands to the Town of Hull in the 17th century. While there has been much legal wrangling over the ownership of the relatively hospitable Brewster Islands in the past three centuries, Graves Ledge was not among those prizes.

It is generally accepted that there is no unincorporated land in the Commonwealth. Who may claim Graves Ledge, however, remains unanswered. The Court left open the question of which municipality has jurisdiction over Graves Ledge if not Hull, remaining unresolved whether any unincorporated land exists, or may exist, in Massachusetts.


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