PROPERTY RIGHTS TO LAND ABUTTING FORMER RAILROAD EASEMENTS

What happens when a railroad abandons its right of way acquired by easements granted many years in the past? The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) faced this situation in the case of Linda Serafin Rowley et al. v. Massachusetts Electric Company (No. SJC-08746) and held, basing their decision, at least in part, upon Massachusetts General Laws c. 183, §58, that the title of the land formerly used for railroad purposes belongs to the abutting owners in fee simple because their predecessors owned the disputed land in the same manner.

The facts are relatively simple. In 1875, a railroad filed “location plans” for its railroad track with the county commissioners, and obtained an easement over the required land.[1] The fee simple interests in the taken land remained with the owners of the parcels who were affected by the taking.[2] In 1972, ten years after the railroad ceased operations, the Massachusetts Electric Company (Mass Electric) acquired all of the railroad's interest in the land, intending to use the right of way for installation of utility lines and reshape the former railway bed into a bicycle path. The plaintiffs in this case filed suit against Mass Electric alleging that Mass Electric merely held an easement in the railway and that they, the plaintiffs, rather than Mass Electric retained a fee simple interest in the land. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment stating that they owned the land within the railway segments in fee simple, that the railroad's easements expired when it abandoned its use, and that Mass Electric did not have the legal right to reshape the railway into a bicycle path because Mass Electric had not acquired an actual property interest in the railway. 

The outcome of the case turns on the interpretation of Chapter 183, §58 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which was enacted to clarify property ownership and more easily identify the owners of the small parcels of land lying beneath highways, streams, walls, and other similar boundaries that for generations have separated parcels of land. Specifically §58 states that “[e]very instrument passing title to real estate abutting a way, whether public or private, watercourse, wall, fence or other similar linear monument, shall be construed to include any fee interest of the grantor in such way, watercourse or monument[.]” The plaintiffs argued that the statutory terms “way” or “other similar linear monument” also applied to railways, and that, because their properties abut a railway, the grantors in their line of succession retained the fee interest when the railroad acquired the easements. 

Mass Electric, on the other hand, contends that terms of §58 do not apply because the deed did not describe the plaintiffs' respective properties as bounded by the “railway.” Further, even if the plaintiffs deeds did contain the proper description, the plaintiffs, Mass Electric contends, still could not establish ownership in the railway pursuant to §58 because a railway is not a “way” or “other similar linear monument” within the meaning of the statute. 

Historically, §58 has allowed interested parties to quiet title to sundry narrow strips of land that formed the boundaries of other tracts by establishing “an authoritative rule of construction for all instruments passing title to real estate abutting a way.”[3] Although common law established a rebuttable presumption that a deed bounding on a way conveyed the title to the center of the way provided that the grantor's property line extended to that point, §58 embodies an even stronger presumption than the common law, favoring the vesting of title in the abutters by applying the presumption unless the instrument of conveyance evidences a different intent of the grantor; it also should be noted that extrinsic evidence may not be used to prove the grantor's intent to retain the fee to the way. Based upon statutory precedent, the SJC has held that real estate abutting a way for purposes of §58 is “property with frontage along the length of a way.”[4] Thus, according to the SJC and standard rules of statutory construction, §58 would seem to apply to instruments that convey real estate that has frontage along the length of a way or other similar linear monument. 

It is clear that §58 should apply to instruments conveying real estate parcels abutting ways or similar linear monuments. To hold otherwise would allow small parcels of land that form such ways would become derelict and the heirs of those who owned the property when the railroad filed its plans would lose their fee interest in the railway. Some critics contend that such a statutory interpretation would be lead to exceedingly expensive and cumbersome title examinations, as it would require conveyancers and title examiners to check information “of record” with respect to every boundary to determine whether a particular parcel of land abuts a way or linear monument. The SJC, however, disagreed with this critique, and held that the statutory language of §58 should apply to plaintiff's property and that such property does abut a “way” or “other similar monument” regardless of how it is described in the instrument of conveyance. 

In short, the plaintiffs have a right to pursue their claims to fee simple title in the disputed land within the railway because their predecessors owned the property in fee simple at the time the railroad filed its location plan and because their property abuts the railroad's former easement, which should be considered a “way” or “other similar linear monument” within the meaning of §58. Accordingly, the SJC vacated the entry of summary judgment and remanded the case to the Superior Court for further proceedings.

 

[1] Hazen v. Boston & Maine R.R., 2 Gray 574, 580 (1854).

[2] Agostini v. North Adams Gas Light Co., 265 Mass. 70, 72-73 (1928); Hall v. Boston & Maine R.R., 211 Mass. 174, 176 (1912).

[3] Tattan v. Kurlan, 32 Mass. App. Ct. 239, 242 (1992).

[4] Emery v. Crowley, 371 Mass. 489, 494 (1976).