Maryland Wins Farmland Preservation Lawsuit Protecting Integrity of Program
Maryland’s highest court decided in favor of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation in a case that could have undermined the intent of the State land preservation program and devalued the $500 million public investment in the preservation of productive Maryland farmland. The court construed the easement based on the “clear language” of the instrument only. In its discussion the court cited cases that applied construction principles from both contract law and real property law. The court awarded costs to the preservation foundation.
In Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, et al v. Herschell B. Claggett, Sr. (Case No. 142), the Court ruled on Dec. 22, 2009 that a landowner cannot exercise a house reserved right limited to the landowner or a child, and then immediately transfer the house and lot to a third party. This, the Court found, would undermine the program’s purpose by facilitating potential real estate speculation on preserved land intended for family farming use. The agricultural preservation easement covered a 208 acre farm.
“This is an important victory for the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF), the farm community and for Maryland taxpayers in ensuring that agricultural land that has been voluntarily protected forever from development remains protected as productive farmland,” said Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “Governor O’Malley is strongly committed to agricultural land preservation and has fully funded the program even in these difficult economic times as a way to ensure a local food supply and that land remains open and managed in an environmentally-sound way.”
The case involved the interpretation of a deed of easement and effect of a law enacted by the Maryland General Assembly in 2004. The Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed a decision of the Court of Specials Appeal that could have allowed thousands of lots to be developed throughout the State on farmland that is permanently preserved by MALPF from residential development.
If the state agricultural land preservation program had lost the case it might potentially have resulted in the loss of up to 10,000 acres of land in one to two acre house lots sold to third parties according to Craig Nielsen, an assistant attorney general involved in the case.
Created by the General Assembly in 1977, MALPF purchases agricultural preservation easements that forever restrict development on prime farmland and woodland and has permanently preserved land in each of Maryland’s 23 counties. To date, the program has preserved more than 2,000 farms on 279,125 acres representing a public investment of over $550 million. With county and other state preservation programs, nearly 535,000 acres of farmland are protected in Maryland. This is the greatest ratio of farmland preserved to total landmass of any state.
According to a survey conducted by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy last year, public opinion in Maryland supports this investment. A full 97 percent of Maryland respondents believe that it is important that the state preserve farmland for farming. Marylanders believe that farms and the products they produce should remain a part of the State’s culture and economy.