A 14-year-long ownership dispute over who has rights to part of Marshfield’s Rexhame Beach may go to trial in Land Court in February, with the town expected to defend the public’s right to use the beach by citing a 1643 Town Meeting vote and an 1832 court decision.
A group of property owners in Rexhame Terrace, a neighborhood of five small streets between Circuit Avenue and the beach, says its members own the dunes, access roads, and beach between Waterman and Ames avenues. But the Marshfield Beach Rights Coalition, which was formed to fight for public access, has sued the Rexhame Terrace group.
Now, both sides say they are looking forward to bringing the case to trial to finally resolve the issue. A Land Court judge said last month that he is prepared to have the trial start in February, although the final date has yet to be set.
“The town is certainly interested in having it resolved. Whatever the court decides, at least it will put it to rest,” said Marshfield’s town counsel, Robert Marzelli. The trial’s schedule is complicated by Marzelli’s impending retirement, and his eventual replacement’s need for time to catch up on the now-voluminous case.
The legal case began in 1998, when Rexhame Terrace residents hired police details to stop outside visitors from using the neighborhood’s section of the beach, saying it is private property. Police cited 15 people for trespassing, but the charges were dropped when the coalition asserted the beach is public. The Rexhame group then sued the state and some Marshfield residents over the dispute.
‘Whatever the court decides, at least it will put it to rest.’
The state attorney general’s office intervened in 1998, siding with the residents seeking public access. But a proposed settlement that would have allowed the public to walk over the beach, but not sit on it, fell through in 2008 after some residents objected to the terms.
Attorney General Martha Coakley issued a statement at the time that appeared to push the matter to the town, saying “since this lawsuit was filed in July 1998, it has been the goal of the attorney general’s office to ensure public access to Rexhame Beach to the greatest extent possible, given the facts and the law. At no time has the attorney general’s office supported any movement to privatize any part of Rexhame Beach, and our office has never considered a settlement that would do so. We are pleased that the Town of Marshfield is now taking a role in this litigation, as we believe that the town has a great interest in the issues involved and in any resolution of this matter.”
Marzelli said the town believes the access issue was resolved both by a vote at a 1643 Town Meeting that declared Rexhame Beach to be common land, and an 1832 court decision that the beach was publicly owned, in response to a lawsuit by a neighborhood resident, Major Briggs Thomas, who claimed rights to the beach.
When Ray Thomas Ames, a great-grandson of the major, later sold the property, the deed included the beachfront. The homeowners who currently hold title to the property are paying annual taxes to the town on the land, Marzelli said. The town retains the title to the beach dunes because the land was sold despite the court ruling that established the area as a public common, he said.
“It’s a case with a lot of history to it,” he said. “The real issue is who can go on the beach there. The town has no interest in the streets leading up to the beach.”
The town has spent upward of $30,000 on the case since 2008, and will spend more as it prepares for trial. “A solution is always the objective. The town is certainly interested in having it resolved. Whatever the court decides, at least it will put it to rest,” Marzelli said.
Brian Rogal, a lawyer for the Rexhame Terrace group, said his clients pay taxes on the land, and have the right to restrict access to it.
“They own the beach. It’s private property, and they own it,” Rogal said. “But beyond that, there’s been tremendous erosion over the years. What makes that worse is people going through the dunes, not being respectful of the dunes and the seagrass that holds the dunes in place. At times, people will have parties down there, there will be open liquor. Often a variety of people down there are disrespectful, they litter. We’d like to have control of all those things.”
Rogal, who said he represents about a dozen homeowners, said a resolution would be welcome.
“We want a trial date set,” he said. “We’re ready for trial as soon as the court is ready for trial.”