Take a lesson from Mohonk Preserve and learn how to protect your staff from less-than-friendly neighbors. The land trust recently won a decades-long dispute over a boundary line before a New York State court. Even better — the family that sold the land to the preserve and other supporters are impressed by the staff and board dedication to lasting conservation.
A New York State appellate court unanimously ruled in favor of Mohonk Preserve in a land dispute regarding a 71.45-acre parcel in the town of Rochester, reversing in full a 2013 decision by the trial court following a bench trial in Ulster County (Remember: The State of New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department is not New York’s highest court).
The court order outright reverses the trial court decision on both the law and facts leaving no doubt that the appeals court felt the lower court was wrong in misconstruing facts and incorrectly applying the law to those facts, in the Mohonk Preserve decade-long adverse possession challenge by two neighbors.
Mohonk Preserve purchased the lands, now known as the Nils J. Johanson Parcel, in 1994 from a long-time Shawangunk Ridge family, the Fingers, who wanted to protect the fragile mountainside slopes and ridge summit with pitch pines, rock ledges and outcrops. In 2003, an adjacent private landowner asserted claims to the lands, resulting in a lawsuit commenced by the land trust with the backing of its title insurance company in 2004.
Gary Finger, grandson of Nils J. Johanson said, “my family elected to sell this land to the preserve because of their longstanding stewardship of the ridge, and because we wanted to honor our father and grandfather and our long-term family commitment to the Shawangunk Mountains. It was an act of conservation and love on the part of my family, and what the preserve had to go through to defend their rightful ownership was reprehensible. The Appellate Court’s decision in this case is an important victory for both conservation and property rights ensuring that these lands will be perpetually protected and will continue to receive the care and stewardship they deserve under Mohonk Preserve’s long-term ownership.”
The case on appeal was handled for the preserve by attorney R. Anthony Rupp III, who has also represented other organizations seeking to prevent incursions onto conserved lands. “I believe that the work land conservation organizations do to ensure that natural areas identified in local, regional and state plans and policies are protected is of utmost importance to our quality of life,” said Rupp. “I encourage these groups to stand up and defend their property rights against attempts to undermine their legal ownership of these protected lands.” The Court awarded costs, but not attorney fees to the preserve.
According to Executive Director Glenn Hoagland, both neighbors fighting the preserve waged an aggressive and multi-faceted adverse public campaign obfuscating facts and recruiting biased bloggers to publicly portray the preserve as the aggressor. These landowners also tried to incite confrontations with preserve staff in the field and in some cases displaying threatening behavior — they also came to the preserve offices to negatively engage with the staff and volunteers. In some instances the police were called to intervene and the staff faced arrests based on trumped up charges of trespass onto neighboring lands, which were later all dismissed once it was understood by the police and local court this is a civil action involving a land dispute. In one instance there was an assault of the preserve’s land surveyor and chief ranger while performing a boundary monitoring patrol on the disputed land.
Mohonk Preserve eventually obtained an injunction and restraining order on one of the individuals, now made permanent by the court order in favor of the preserve. What the preserve learned from this is to always travel to boundary monitoring visits on known problem boundaries in groups of two to three staff, to carry a video camera with audio ready to film and audio record, and never to escalate.
Be courteous, neighborly and professional despite inflammatory rhetoric directed at you. Staff snd volunteers also learned always to carry the recorded deed, filed survey and any court decisions or restraining orders to prove their right to be on the disputed land. Hoagland said that “while police officers will have little ability to determine on the spot who is the rightful owner, being prepared with a packet of documents showing your ownership helps the officer to understand you take your being there seriously and professionally, and those documents may cause an officer to back down from pressing charges."