ROCKPORT — In their third court case against the town, members of the Back Beach Neighbor Committee claim the beach and its surrounding areas rightly belong to them, not the public.
The committee's original complaint was filed in Land Court in March by their lawyer, Michael Walsh. The town of Rockport filed a motion to dismiss the case in May but, as the plaintiffs amended their complaint two weeks later, the court dismissed Rockport's motion as moot. It is unclear at this time if the town has submitted another motion to dismiss the amended suit which also names the city of Gloucester as a defendant..
The lawsuit argues that 18 Back Beach abutters all own portions of the land that includes "the land between their house and the western edge of the pavement of Beach Street," Beach Street itself as a private way, Back Beach, and the lot that houses the American Legion.
Only five neighbors — Stephanie Rauseo, John Franco, Anne Rosone Franco, Thomas Giblin, and Gaetona and Roseanne Cerundulo — are listed on the complaint. The complaint identifies them as members of the Back Beach Neighbor Committee, which it says has over a dozen members.
"The committee anticipates that other people may join its claims, in the event that Beach Street is determined to be a private way, the abutters rights may be affected or increased to prevent the creation of landlocked parcels," the complaint reads.
The committee members' claim to Back Beach relies on century-old deeds, some going back to the 17th century. According to an 1836 survey, all but two parcels adjacent to Back Beach did not have beach rights extending to the median highwater mark.
As the complaint states, portions of Beach Street private property were gifted to the town under pretenses that were never followed through. For example, in the 1820s, local owners of land off Beach Street gifted portions of their properties to the town under the explicit condition that it would be used as a site for a new primary school. The Beach Street schoolhouse opened in 1860 and closed down in 1930, when it was converted into the American Legion hall. Now that the building is no longer a school, the suit argues, the land belongs to the inheritors of the former owners.
The same holds true for Beach Street. The complaint argues that "in the first quarter of the 20th century," landowners again donated portions of their properties to the town "expressly conditioned upon the widening and improvement of Beach Street." These plans were ultimately scrapped when the state began constructing Route 127 in the 1920s. The town retained the gifted Beach Street portions and installed a seawall and new drainage and sewerage systems in the 1930s. But, because the street was never widened as the land agreement stipulated, the complaint argues the town should forfeit the land.
The town's ownership of the now-contested Back Beach properties were further codified by a survey conducted by the Essex County Commissioners in 1931. The survey was conducted under the assumption that Back Bay was a public landing. The lawsuit claims the opposite.
"1797-1799, while surveying and cataloging all the town’s public property, the Town Meeting accepted a report by an investigative committee who reported that there were 7 public landing places in Gloucester," it reads. "Back Beach was not one of the landing places."
During the time when this catalog was made, Rockport was still known as Sandy Bay Village, a section of Gloucester. Rockport did not achieve independence until 1839.
"No subsequent statutes authorize the erection of a public landing spot, which has become required since at least the enactment of the Revised Statutes," it reads. "Other statutes enacted by the Legislature have allowed the disestablishment or establishment of public landings in Rockport, but none deal with Back Beach."
The complaint notes surveyors with the Essex County Commissioners' office described the maps of Rockport as "poorly kept and frequently inaccurate and at variance with official state calling." Still, the lack of an official "public landing" designation for Back Beach means the town does not legally own it, the lawsuit claims.
"The Town has never owned Back Beach," it argues. "In the alternative, the Town may own it in undivided whole in common with the Committee Members who have frontage on Beach Street...The Town’s attempts to label the Committee’s claims as 'ludicrous' or 'beyond reason' or frivolous are belied by months of careful research, work with various archivists, and extensive historical and legal research."
The Back Beach Neighbor Committee and Walsh have two other cases pending in Superior and U.S. district courts regarding issues with Back Beach. In April, the U.S. District Court dismissed seven of the nine civil rights complaints made by the committee against the town. In the past, the committee has publicly complained about the alleged disturbances caused by SCUBA instructors teaching classes at Back Beach.
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or email@example.com.