Trustees Win Lawsuit Brought by Neighbor
A Massachusetts court dismissed a neighbor lawsuit to enforce a conservation easement, joining New Hampshire’s Tallman decision in a string of third party enforcement cases denied on lack of standing. These cases establish the land trust right to enforce. Neighbor objections often do not support any general public benefit.
The Massachusetts Land Court dismissed a law suit against The Trustees of Reservations (MA) brought by a neighbor to enforce a conservation restriction (Massachusetts name for conservation easement). The Court entered a final judgment ruling that the neighbor had no standing to enforce the conservation restriction.
“This case required a large investment in time by our staff and outside legal counsel,” explained Chris Rodstrom, Director of the Conservation Restriction Program at The Trustees of Reservations, “but by prevailing we’re now in a stronger position to deal with any other abutters to our 340 conservation restrictions that attempt to unduly influence our stewardship program.”
This decision has limited precedential value because it is a judgment in the Trial Court; nonetheless, it still is useful for any land trust dealing with a neighbor that is threatening a lawsuit. It may also have some value in other lower courts especially coupled with the Tallman decision to show how other courts have dealt with the issue.
The owner of the conserved land granted the conservation restriction in 2008 to the Trustees. The restrictions provided for a building envelope, access and utilities on the 36 acre property in a spot where a home and barn had previously stood. A year later, the land owner proposed to dismantle an existing historic home it owned elsewhere in town and move it into the building envelope. The neighbors, Frank and Jean Granara, objected alleging that the access would have to be widened to accommodate moving the house and would disturb 978 feet of bordering vegetated wetlands. The access driveway abuts the rear boundary of the Granaras’ home on a small lot.
The Trustees had reviewed and approved the landowner plans as consistent with the purposes of the restrictions. The Granaras sued the landowner, Stetson Kindred of America, Inc. for violating the restrictions and the Trustees for failing to enforce the restritions. The Granaras claimed that they personally benefit from the restrictions on the Stetson property since it increases their property values and therefore they have the right to enforce the restrictions. The Trustees countered that the Granaras’ lacked standing to sue and to enforce the restrictions and that in any event the contemplated actions are consistent with the restrictions. On joint motion of the parties, the court considered two issues: whether Stetson’s activities violate the restrictions and whether the Granaras have standing to enforce the restrictions.
The court held for the Trustees on all counts finding that only named holders in the restrictions have any right to enforce them.
“It helped to have a good conservation restriction stewardship program in place,” added Chris Rodstrom, “since we could demonstrate to the judge that our approval of the building was carefully considered and well documented.”
Recent Related Case
Elizabeth Tallman filed a case, (Tallman v. Outhouse, et. al.) against her neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Outhouse, the owners of abutting property partially protected by a conservation easement, the Rockingham County Conservation District (conservation easement grantee) and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (executory interest holder in the conservation easement). Ms. Tallman claimed she had a third party right to enforce the easement, and that the Conservation District and the Forest Society were failing to enforce the terms. She also asserted a right of unfettered access to the protected property, which the Court rejected, upholding the landowners' right to post against and to control public access. Essentially, she sought a ruling that conservation easement prevented her neighbors from building their home on land not encumbered by the easement, and that the easement prevented access to the residence site. Elizabeth Tallman asked the Court to order that, among other things, the easement precluded the construction of the house and access to it, and that the conservation restrictions also extended to the excluded 1.23 acres as a result of an equitable servitude.
The neighbor’s legal positions required the easement holders to vigorously oppose the assertion that abutters have legal standing to interpret or enforce easements, or to restrict or utilize easement land for their personal goals. There were other related disputes at issue in the lawsuit, but the critical matter for the Forest Society, and for the land conservation community as a whole, was the whether abutters or other third parties can sue to enforce conservation easements granted to land trusts, municipalities and state agencies. The New Hampshire statute that authorizes conservation easements does not include an express statement that only the holders of a conservation easement have legal standing or a right to sue to enforce the easement.
This was essentially a dispute between neighbors that escalated to include both easement holders. One of the neighbors had very nice land subject to an existing conservation easement. The complaining abutter tried to use the easement as a sword for her personal purposes against the wishes, interpretation, and authority of the easement holders. Voluntary settlement attempts proved fruitless. The court ruled explicitly that New Hampshire recognizes no third party right of enforcement, and further that the Outhouses’ plan to build a house on the unrestricted portion of their land cannot be viewed in any way as a violation of the easement. The court also acknowledged that the Outhouse’s use of the historic access route that crossed a small potion of the easement land was not a violation of the easement.
The Court found for the defendants on all counts and also held that the easement did not require open access to the general public. This is what the Conservation District and Forest Society sought from the court and is a very good result for the NH land trust community.