The town of Edgartown and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission won a major land use victory this week when the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled that they have wide latitude to restrict development on ancient ways.
The decision by a three-judge panel overturned a 2011 superior court decision in favor of the Hall family, which owns 125 acres of land adjacent to five pre-Colonial roads once used as cart paths and walkways.
The superior court had said the MVC needed to show that the ancient ways were public before they could be considered as districts of critical planning concern (DCPC). But in an opinion issued Thursday, a three-judge appellate panel disagreed.
In a highly technical ruling, the court said that public access is not the only criteria for creating a DCPC for a cultural or historic district.
“It’s a great win for the Island because it permits other old roads — of which there are a lot — to be designated as DCPCs,” said Edgartown attorney Ronald H. Rappaport, who represented the town in the case. “It also upholds the MVC legislation and says the legislature has charged you with making these larger decisions. It’s the right decision and the right result.”
The long-running case dates to 2007 when the commission identified 23 ancient ways on the Vineyard worthy of special designation because of their history and character and adopted guidelines that towns could opt to implement.
The guidelines generally set forth protections for the ways, including such things as prohibiting any enlargement or paving, removal of vegetation within 20 feet of their centerline or creation of fences, walls or other obstructions. At a special town meeting, Edgartown voters adopted a zoning bylaw based on the guidelines to protect five ancient paths: Middle Line, Ben Tom’s Road, Pennywise Path, Watcha Path and Tar Kiln Road.
“In particular, the guidelines and bylaw recognized the historic and tribal origins of the ways as cart paths and walkways and their current recreational use and availability for walking, bicycling or horseback riding,” the appellate court wrote.
Historians believe that many of the ancient ways, built by settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, were traced over paths previously established by the native Wampanoags.
Members of the Hall family, which had opposed the guidelines, wound up in court with the town months later after the family began cutting trees on Middle Line and Watcha paths. After protracted legal exchanges, the Hon. Cornelius Moriarty, an associate justice of the superior court, vacated the designation of the five special ways as DCPCs and sent the case back to the MVC.
The decision does not mean the ancient ways are open to the public, but simply that the town can create restrictions on their development, Mr. Rappaport noted.
The town bylaw also authorizes exceptions to those restrictions by special permit.
The Halls may petition the state Supreme Judicial Court to review the appeals court decision. In its opinion, the appellate court noted that the Halls did not submit an updated brief or participate in the final oral argument in the case.