How a Dartmouth Backyard Renovation Became a Salamander-Focused Civil Action Lawsuit
The SouthCoast was recently divided over something no one ever expected to take sides on: the marbled salamander.
The story of a South Dartmouth family vs. the Commonwealth of Massachusetts left many wondering why the government could dictate what they could and could not do on their private property, potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars in fines for violations.
In the case of South Dartmouth’s Allen Neck Road, the residential property and a significant area around the home was designated by the Priority Habitat for the marbled salamander, which is listed as a threatened species under the state of Massachusetts. The disturbance of a marbled salamander's habitat is a violation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, and the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act. Violations against any of the above three Acts are subject to large civil penalties, some as high as $25,000 per day.
When going through the purchase and sales process for the home in 2017, the Massucco family said they were not made aware of the circumstances surrounding the property, noting that the local conservation commission, their realtor, and their closing attorney did not mention potential issues when they asked about clearing trees on the property.
“We checked in with the conservation commission in Dartmouth first as we knew we would have to clear some trees on the property. They said it was not a problem," property owner Marissa Massucco wrote on her website, StoptheState.com. "Our realtor said it would be a great property to raise the horses and kids! Again, clearing trees not an issue. We had closing attorneys when we purchased the house, never mentioned any potential issues.”
When asked if the former homeowner knew the land was mapped as a Priority Habitat when listing the property for sale, Massucco said they did not know.
“We don't know if the state notified the previous owner, he did not disclose it to us, we were not notified. The broker insists they did not know," she said.
After moving in, the family began clearing trees on their property to make a suitable area for their horses, a large deciding factor for buying the large Dartmouth property in the first place.
After receiving a copy of the Massuccos' Notice of Intent and learning about the proposed project on their Allen's Neck property, the state’s Division of Wildlife and Fisheries asked them to stop until the plan could be reviewed in detail, including the short and long term effects on the marbled salamander.
By then, there were already a number of violations that had occurred, according to the official civil action complaint filed by the state this past September. The family has been entangled with the state on the matter ever since.
The story of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Massucco brought to light a point that many people aren’t aware of, which is that while you may own your land, it can still be subject to local, state, and federal zoning laws that control how the land can be used.
Dartmouth Conservation Commission Agent Marc Garrett (who was not affiliated with the 2017 purchase of the property) noted that particularly in the case of Dartmouth, if you notice a land for sale and you think it would be a great parcel to develop, there may be a reason it is still undeveloped.
There are a few similar cases to the Massuccos' situation – most notably, William Peppin's lawsuit brought against MassWildlife for labeling his land a priority habitat for box turtles. Peppin claimed the designation stopped him from building a retirement home on the 36 acres of heavily wooded land in Hampden.
Buyers should always do their due diligence and make sure they have fully informed themselves on the parcel and any limitations it may have. If there are, that doesn’t necessarily mean work can’t be done, it just means the permitting and review process may take some time to complete and the project may have to be done differently to remain in compliance.
At any time, owners or buyers can use the state’s online mapping tool MassGIS OLIVER site to find the parcel of land in question. The OLIVER site is used to search, display, and share spatial data pertaining to Massachusetts and you can search any address available.
As for the the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' action against the Massuccos, the case is in litigation at this time. It is an ongoing lawsuit for violations of law. No specific dollar amount is listed in the complaint.