$300,000 Spent to Defend Easement in California
In a ruling by a California State Superior Court judge closely watched by communities, land trusts, and property owners across the state, the Nevada County Land Trust and the owners of conserved land prevailed last fall in a civil lawsuit brought by an adjacent landowner who attempted to build a road across protected land to gain access to his property. The land trust conducted a special appeal campaign locally to raise a portion of the defense costs, which exceeded $300,000.
“This is a huge win for our community and we’re obviously pleased with the decision,” said Joe Byrne, president of the Nevada County Land Trust Board of Directors. “We are also very grateful for the extensive community support both in terms of advocacy for our cause of permanent land protection and from the many donors who contributed to the legal costs of the defense. Attorney fees are un-recoverable and are a major financial drain for a community supported non-profit.”
During the court trial, 23 witnesses were called during eight days of testimony over an 8-month period, 455 exhibits were admitted, and the court and counsel made two site visits to the disputed properties located off of Bitney Springs Road outside historic Nevada City, California. Read the court opinion.
The essence of the case brought by the neighbor was that old homesteader trails likely crossed the conserved land, and as public byways he claimed he could use them as a more convenient way to access his 160-acre adjoining parcel that he purchased in 2005. Although the neighbor claimed his property was landlocked, a different and longer access route to his property that does not traverse the conserved land had been previously established through a road easement by a prior owner. The neighbor argued that the previously established easement was too costly to develop as an access road to his parcel.
The land trust and the landowners argued that a road on their land would violate their conservation easement, which preserves their ranch as agricultural land. A local cattle rancher leases the conserved land for his business, Nevada County Free Range Beef which supplies several Grass Valley and Nevada City restaurants and markets.
The Judge ruled that the historic homesteader roads portrayed on the neighbor’s maps cannot be proven to be on the conserved land. The neighbor based his case on maps showing roads dating to the 1850s. But the two maps, county tax records and expert testimony were not enough evidence to prove that the roads ever crossed the conserved land the Judge ruled. Land trusts across the state are looking at a court decision in Nevada County and the precedents it could set for conservation easements elsewhere.
“Land trusts have been protecting land with conservation easements in California for the past 30 years. These early challenges are very important to establish a track-record of courts upholding the agreements,” said Darla Guenzler, executive director of the California Council of Land Trusts. The group represents 86 land trusts statewide in Sacramento. “Local communities, the public and landowners have made enormous investments in conserving land for the many public benefits it provides, and it is essential to defend challenges to these natural treasures. So far, the land trust community has prevailed, and we hope the outcome of this case will deter others,” Guenzler said.
The Nevada County Land Trust is a 501c3, for the public benefit organization. The Nevada County Land Trust exists to create a balance between nature and the needs of the people who make a life and a livelihood here. Their mission is to enrich the deep community connection with our land - today, tomorrow and forever. For more information visit their website, NevadaCountyLandTrust.org or contact Marty Coleman-Hunt, executive director at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-272-5994.
Photos courtesy of Nevada County Land Trust