New York Supreme Court Holds That Underwater Lands Owned by New York State, Not Municipality

The Supreme Court of New York, Suffolk County, recently held that a municipality could not fine a shell fisherman for harvesting shellfish from underwater lands because the lands were owned by the State.  See Murphy v. Town of Oyster Bay, NYLJ 1202747336012 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2016).  In the case, the plaintiff held a State license to harvest shellfish in waters owned by the State.  In 2010, however, the plaintiff received two citations from the Town of Oyster Bay for harvesting shellfish in waters the Town claimed to own.  The plaintiff sued, seeking a declaratory judgment of who owned the underwater lands in question.  The Town claimed to own the land based on a 1677 grant from the Duke of York’s Governor General, which granted it the underwater land bordered on the north by the Long Island Sound.  The grant, however, did not specify where Oyster Bay ended and the Sound began.  The State argued that an 1828 case that determined the boundary between the Bay and the Sound demonstrated that it owned the land in question.  See Rogers v. Jones, 1828 WL 2217 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1828).  The Court found that the State has a presumption of title to submerged land and that the Town has the burden of proving that it owns the land through “the clear and unequivocal language of the grant.”  Citing to the 1828 decision and finding that the language of the Governor General’s grant did not clearly and unequivocally rebut this presumption, the Court held that the land belonged to the State and that the citations were void.

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