Environment | Law

Massachusetts court rules in Wampanoag land access case

This photo shows a blocked road to a property at issue in the case. Photo from James Decolous

Members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe retain access rights across their ancestral lands, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today.

In the late 1800s, Wampanoag lands on the island of Martha's Vineyard were divided among individual tribal members. Access rights continue to exist even if they weren't drawn at the time, the court determined by 2-1 vote.

"From the earliest time, the members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head had a custom and practice of common access across the lands that are the subject of this appeal," Judge Janis M. Berry wrote for the majority. "For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the ancient origins of that common access -- dating back before the late eighteenth century -- establish the equivalent of a chain of title, with access rights that would not yield landlocked parcels."

The decision does not outright appear to benefit the tribe or its members. Instead, it helps property owners who have been engaged in a long-running battle with the town of Aquinnah over access to land they acquired from tribal members.

At one point, the property owners secured a ruling that said the federal government, as a trustee for the tribe, was a necessary party to the messy litigation. But that decision was overturned on appeal.

The case is Kitas v. Town of Aquinnah.

Get the Story:
Tribal access rights recognized by Appeals Court (Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly 1/14)
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Massachusetts Appeals Court Decision:
Kitras v. Town of Aquinnah (January 14, 2015)