by Jessica G. Kelly
The long-standing “prior public use doctrine”—a common law doctrine which arose in the 1800s—states that “public lands devoted to one public use cannot be diverted to another inconsistent public use without plain and explicit legislation authorizing the diversion.” Town of Sudbury v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 485 Mass. 774, 775 (2020) (Sudbury). In a much anticipated decision, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that the prior public use doctrine did not apply to “diversion of land devoted to one public use to an inconsistent private use.” In Sudbury, the SJC declined to extend the doctrine to land transactions between public agencies and private entities.
As the defendants in the underlying case, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and NSTAR Electric Company d/b/a Eversource Energy (Eversource) urged, the SJC reasoned that application of the prior public use doctrine to public to private transactions would have broad, adverse implications for real estate and housing development in the Commonwealth, including creating significant uncertainty in developments that benefit the public.
The case began in 2017, after the MBTA entered into an option agreement with Eversource to install an electric transmission line underneath approximately nine miles of a former MBTA railroad right of way (ROW), a portion of which traveled through the Town of Sudbury (Town). The MBTA originally acquired the ROW through a railroad company indenture and through eminent domain for purposes of mass transportation services. The ROW had not, however, been used as a railroad for over forty years. The option agreement would generate $9.3 million for the MBTA over twenty years.
The Town challenged the agreement as violating the prior public use doctrine, arguing that the ROW could not be changed to an electrical utility use absent legislative approval. The Town took the position that Eversource’s proposed utility line was actually a subsequent public use, because utilities have a public purpose and, therefore, fell within the doctrine.
In granting the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, the Land Court (Piper, J.) concluded that the Town’s standing was on the “precipice of adequacy,” but that Eversource was not a public entity, the proposed use at issue was a subsequent private use, and, therefore, the prior public use doctrine did not apply.
The Court’s Analysis
The SJC affirmed. The SJC first held that the Town had standing based on the limited portions of publicly-owned land abutting or within the ROW, but only to the extent the Town had a legally cognizable interest in the ROW remaining in its “current, disused, and overgrown condition.”
The SJC next addressed whether the prior public use doctrine applied to the option agreement. The Town argued that the Land Court erred because (1) even though Eversource is a private corporation, the proposed use of the ROW for electrical transmission lines is a public use; and (2) the Land Court’s narrow reading of the prior public use doctrine defeats the purpose of protecting “public land acquired for a particular public use” from being diverted to a different use without legislative approval.
The SJC agreed with the Land Court that, “the proposed use of the MBTA ROW to construct and operate underground transmission lines is not a public use.” The Court focused on the character of the use, noting that Eversource is privately owned and operated, will pay taxes and can earn a profit on the project. That Eversource is subject to public regulation and oversight did not convert the privately owned utility into a public entity.
The SJC also agreed with the Land Court that the prior public use doctrine could not be extended to protect public land from any subsequent inconsistent use. The Court explained that the doctrine originally developed, not just to protect public land, but to resolve disputes over inter-governmental transfers between public agencies, political subdivisions and/or state-sponsored corporations that may have conflicting claims to authority over the use of public land, especially parkland. As examples, the SJC cited to a dispute between a town and State agency over whether property acquired for parkland could be converted to a transportation use, Brookline v. Metropolitan Dist. Comm’n, 357 Mass. 435, 435 (1970), and a dispute between a town and county commissioners concerning the relocation of a public way over land previously appropriated for school and library use, Needham v. County Comm’rs of Norfolk, 324 Mass. 293, 295-297 (1940), among others.
The SJC concluded that the “doctrine of prior public use prevents the absurd result of public entities, each with the authority to exercise eminent domain, taking and retaking the same property from each other” in perpetuity. Noting that the prior public use doctrine had never been applied to prevent a subsequent private use by a private entity, the SJC expressly declined to extend the doctrine to such circumstances. The Court also cautioned that requiring legislative approval for every diversion of land from public to private use “would lead to numerous deleterious consequences,” such as adding significant uncertainty to development in the Commonwealth and making important collaborations between public and private entities time- and cost-prohibitive.
The SJC’s decision in Sudbury was a relief to real estate and utility industries, among others. The SJC appeared persuaded by the argument that public/private development projects rely on the ability of public agencies to divert public land to private entities for private uses, and that many such developments further public purposes such as clean energy, public housing, and affordable child care facilities, and generate significant income for the Commonwealth.
It is important to note that the Sudbury decision does not open the floodgates to unfettered transfers of public lands, but simply eliminates the need for legislative approval for those transfers to private entities for private uses. Aggrieved parties may still challenge projects through local zoning, site plan review, utility, environmental, building and conservation procedures. Indeed, the Town of Sudbury’s appeal of the Energy Facilities Siting Board’s decision approving Eversource’s transmission line is currently pending before the SJC, No. SJC-12997.
Jessica Gray Kelly is a partner at the Boston office of Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP. She represents clients in complex commercial litigation, land use disputes, and professional liability matters. She also advises clients on risk reduction and management and dispute resolution.