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United States v. Town of Lincoln Zoning Board of Appeals

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 22, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF LINCOLN ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

LEO T. SOROKIN, District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. Doc. No. 77. This litigation concerns a property dispute regarding certain tracts of land in the town of Lincoln, Massachusetts. Plaintiff, the United States, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as to Defendant's trespass on United States' property and compliance with National Park Service and Air Force regulations.[1] See generally Doc. No. 78. Plaintiff claims that Defendant, the Town of Lincoln Affordable Housing Trust (the Trust), has trespassed and intends to continue to trespass on federal government property in order to access and improve their property, that any construction on the Trust's property requires approval from the National Park Service, and that access to and construction on an abutting property purported to be owned by the United States requires approval pursuant to Air Force and National Park Service regulations. Id.

The United States has moved for summary judgment on the above described counts. Doc. No. 77. Defendant has opposed the Motion. Doc. No. 89. The parties have briefed the issues, and the Court held a hearing on this matter on June 24, 2014. After careful consideration, and for the reasons that follow, the United States' Motion for Summary Judgment is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. STATEMENT OF FACTS

The facts set forth below are undisputed, unless expressly noted otherwise, and all reasonable inferences from those facts are drawn in favor of Defendant, who opposes the Motion for Summary Judgment.

This litigation focuses on two abutting tracts of land, known for the purposes of this litigation as the Lot and the Parcel. The Lot, situated at 12 Airport Road, is currently owned by the Trust. Doc. Nos. 78 at 5 ¶ 14[2], 90 ¶ 14. The Parcel abuts the western boundary of the Lot and contains a segment of a paved road known as Airport Road.[3] See Doc. No. 100-1 at 2. For readers not familiar with the layout of these tracts, the map filed as Docket Number 81-3 in this action may be a helpful reference.

All of the land involved in this dispute is located in the town of Lincoln, Massachusetts, near its borders with the towns of Lexington and Bedford. See Doc. No. 81-4. In the years preceding 1946, the two tracts involved in this suit were included within one larger holding owned by the Estates of James M. Neville and Henry P. Neville. Doc. Nos. 78 at 5 ¶¶ 12-13, 90 ¶¶ 12-13, 82-1 at 11. In 1946, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts condemned part of the Neville holding, along with property held by several other landowners in the area, in order to construct a state highway to run northwest in Lincoln from the town line with Lexington to the town line with Bedford. Doc. Nos. 90 ¶ 12, 82-1 at 11. The length of the state highway as laid out in the Order of Taking was slightly more than 3, 900 feet. Doc. No. 82-1 at 2. The state highway, known as Airport Road, was constructed so as to bisect the Neville holding, leaving the estate with property on either side of the land taken for the new state highway. Doc. No. 82-1 at 11. In 1952, Mary and Delia Neville conveyed a portion of the property on the western side of the highway, comprising approximately one acre, to William and Sarah Baltrush by deed. Doc. Nos. 90 ¶ 13, 82-5 at 1. This conveyance created the tract at 12 Airport Road known as the Lot, Doc. Nos. 78 at 5 ¶ 13, 90 ¶ 13, which abuts the land taken and laid out as a highway by the Commonwealth in 1946, Doc. Nos. 100-1 at 2, 105 ¶ 7. The Baltrushes owned the Lot until 1973, Doc. No. 92-10 at 1, resided there, see Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 3, and presumably accessed the property via the state highway throughout that time as no other road abuts the property.

In April of 1971, the Department of Public Works of the Commonwealth issued an Order of Alteration which purported to change the terminus of the state highway described above. Doc. No. 92-5 at 1-2. Per the document of alteration, the land subject to the 1946 condemnation that lay northwest of station 4.60[4] was deemed "no longer needed for State highway purposes." Doc. No. 92-5 at 1. Thus, the order "revis[ed] the line defining the northwesterly end of the State highway to conform to the southwesterly boundary of land no longer needed for State highway purposes, " effectively shortening the highway by moving the terminus approximately 3, 500 feet southwest. Id .; Doc. No. 92 ¶ 17. Put another way, the alteration simply shortened the state highway from approximately 3, 900 feet to 400 feet such that this short state highway now ended in front of 8 Airport Road and did not reach 12 Airport Road. The Order of Alteration directed the Secretary of the Public Works Commission to send certified copies of the revised plan and a certificate of alteration to both the Middlesex County Commissioners and the Clerk of the Town of Lincoln. Doc. No. 92-5 at 2.

While the Order of Alteration invokes Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 81, without specifying a particular section, id. at 1; the parties appear to agree that the Commonwealth acted only pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 81, § 6. The parties do dispute whether the Commonwealth properly complied with the requirements for executing an alteration and the significance of the alteration to the land at 12 Airport Road. The United States contends that the alteration terminated the public highway to the southwest of the Lot, leaving no portion of the Lot abutting the state highway or, indeed, any public way, and thus stranding the tract without any right of access after the alteration. Doc. No. 78 at 15-17. The Trust, for its part, asserts that the alteration, if effective, transformed the state highway into a town road. Doc. No. 111 at 6-7.

In any event, no evidence indicates or suggests that after the Order of Alteration, the Commonwealth took any steps to prohibit access to the portion of the state highway abutting 12 Airport Road.[5]

In May of 1971, approximately one month after the Order of Alteration, the Department of Public Works, on behalf of the Commonwealth and pursuant to the authority granted to it by Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 81, § 7E, signed a deed that purported to convey to the United States the portion of the state highway that, per the Order of Alteration, was no more. Doc. No. 82-4 at 1-2. Specifically, the instrument conveyed twelve acres of land, consisting of the property taken in 1946 northwest of station 4.60, which had been deemed no longer needed for state highway purposes in the Order of Alteration. Id . The conveyance granted the property in fee simple and contained no reservations or limitations. Id . The United States alleges that, since the conveyance, the Parcel has been owned by the United States and under the control of the United States Air Force. Doc. Nos. 78 at 15, 78-5 ¶ 7.

Today, and for many years preceding the institution of this litigation, both Minute Man National Historical Park and Hanscom Air Force Base have existed in the vicinity of the Lot and the Parcel. Doc. Nos. 78-1 ¶¶ 2, 6, 78-5 ¶ 7. Lands comprising Hanscom Air Force Base lie to the north and the west of the Lot, Doc. No. 100-1 at 2, and, as mentioned, the United States alleges that the Parcel, to the east of the Lot, was incorporated into Hanscom at the time of the May 1971 conveyance to the United States. Doc. No. 78-5 ¶ 7. Additionally, Minute Man National Historical Park, as created in 1959, existed to the south of the Lot and the Parcel. See Doc. No. 78-1 ¶¶ 2, 6. In 1991, however, Congress expanded the legislative boundaries of the Park to include both the Lot and the Parcel. Doc. No. 78-1 ¶ 6.

For some substantial period of time, Airport Road "had a lot of motor vehicle traffic" because it was the main and most convenient entrance to Hanscom Air Force Base. Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 8. Later, the Base constructed another entrance, and now there is virtually no motor vehicle traffic on Airport Road, Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 8, and the gate to the Base on Airport Road is generally closed, Doc. No. 78-1 ¶ 7.

In the period of 1971 to 1973, the gate to Hanscom Air Force Base existed on Airport Road to the southwest of the Lot. Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 9. From the Lot, William Baltrush, the then owner of the Lot and an employee at the Base, could leave the Lot, access the old state highway, and enter the Base without passing through the gate. Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 10. The residents of 8 Airport Road, however, in order to enter their driveway from the portion of Airport Road which is undisputedly public, had to pass through the gate. Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 10. The evidence suggests that the residents of both these properties enjoyed unfettered access to their properties via Airport Road subject to the inconvenience of having to pass through the gate. See Doc. No. 78-6 ¶¶ 9-11.

In 1973, in response to complaints from the owner of 8 Airport Road, the Air Force moved its gate further up Airport Road. Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 11. Thereafter, one could come or go from either 8 or 12 Airport Road without passing through the Base gate and without any restriction or limitation. See Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 11. After the Baltrushes sold the Lot in 1973, the property was passed through a number of intervening conveyances before the Trust gained ownership in 2011. Doc. No. 92-10 at 1. The house that existed on the Lot was damaged by fire in 2005, and the property has been vacant since that time. Doc. Nos. 78-6 ¶ 6, 90 ¶ 2.

The record evidence suggests that the Lot remained generally owned and occupied as a single family residence until possibly as late as 2005 when the home burned. See Doc. Nos. 78-6 ¶ 7, 92-10 at 1. Nothing in the record suggests any actual restriction on access to the Lot during this period of time. Subsequent to the fire, the Lot has remained unoccupied and unused, Doc. No. 78-6 ¶ 6, although, again, there is no evidence of restrictions on access to the property until December 2011, as described below.

After the expansion of the National Park in 1991, the United States, in 1998, acquired 8 Airport Road, which abuts the Lot to the south, from Josephine Stout, who retained a life estate in the property. Doc. Nos. 78 at 5 ¶ 15, 90 ¶ 15, 100-1 at 2. The result of this acquisition was that the Lot was now enclosed on all four sides by land either owned by or purported to be owned by the United States: to the north and the west by lands ...


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