MA SJC Decision in Westfield Case Strengthens Protection of Conserved Land


On October 2, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court strengthened protection of conservation land in the case of Smith v. Westfield   (www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/reporter-of-decisions/new-opinions/12243.pdf)

Background
In 1972, Massachusetts voters approved Article 97 to the Massachusetts Constitution, granting people the right to a clean environment and, among other things, creating protection for publicly held conservation lands by requiring a two-thirds vote of the state legislature before the sale or conversion of open space to other uses. A good description of Art. 97 is at www.mcgregorlegere.com/areas-of-practice/105-article-97.  Over the past  few years, the SJC has issued strong support for conservation (see Neff v. Hawley, affirming property tax exemption for conservation land), but had also issued two decisions (Mahajan and Hanson, described in the Westfield case) which significantly narrowed the lands to which Art. 97 applied.

The Decision
Westfield clearly broadens the lands to which Art. 97 applies, stating that “dedication” for the purpose of Article 97 may be accomplished by means other than a formal acquisition for that purpose or a recorded document.  The decision cites the litany of facts in Westfield (which may be summarized as a parcel of land named a park, used for many years as a park, shown on many public plans as a park and which had received state and federal open space funds) which indicate that the federal government, the state, the regional and city officials and the public all considered this property a park. But the Court appears to give primacy to the city’s acceptance of Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund monies, which imposed a condition (accepted by the City) of future uses consistent with the open space uses intended by the grant.  The holding is “…A city or town dedicates land as a public park where there is a clear and unequivocal intent to dedicate the land permanently as a public park and where the public accepts such use by actually using the land as a public park”.

The conclusion is obviously good for conservation, but the case leaves open the “how much is needed for dedication” to sort of a “you know it when you see it” – being more than an incidental note in a large redevelopment plan (Mahajan) or an authorization at town meeting never acted upon by the Selectmen (Hanson), but less than an eminent domain action or formal recording of an expression of dedication. The SJC clearly intends this to be an important decision, as it expands beyond the narrow holding it could have made concerning Article 97 to include commentary about Higginson v. Boston (1948) and Lowell v. Boston (1912) ( Boston Common) invoking the “public dedication doctrine” (analogous to the “prior public use doctrine”), effectively imposing (without a recorded document) an easement for the benefit of all people (not only city residents), and explicitly recognizing the “healthful and civilizing influence of parks in and near congested areas of population” (citing Higginson).

It should be noted that, once again, the conservation community pulled together in preparation for the SJC argument, with Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition, The Trustees of Reservations and Mass Audubon submitting an Amicus brief, as well as the Association to Preserve Cape Cod and the Conservation Law Foundation.

 

Read the MassLand, The Trustees and Mass Audubon brief here.