A divided Supreme Court in Maine has denied standing to an owner of real estate burdened by a conservation easement seeking to enforce the terms of the easement against an adjacent landowner to whom the owner sold the property burdened by the same easement. In a 5-2 decision, the Court has affirmed a trial court decision denying standing on the ground that it is not authorized under the state’s law modeled on the Uniform Conservation Easement Act.
In 1997, Marion Payson granted a conservation easement on about 100 acres of land along the coast in Cumberland County to the Cumberland Mainland and Islands Trust. In subsequent years, control of the easement was transferred to the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust and the owner of the land transferred several parcels encumbered by the easement to other owners, including the Town of Cumberland. The Town proposed to use a portion of its piece for a public beach, parking, and bathhouse and toilet facilities.
The Estate of Robbins, which now owns what is left of the original 100 acres, sought to stop the development as a violation of the easement. When the land trust waived its right to enforce the easement and the Town would not agree to stop the development, the estate filed suit to enforce the easement. It sought a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, plus damages and costs, and included a breach of contract claim against the land trust.
Looking at the state’s conservation easement statute, the Court said that a suit could be brought only by “an owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement,” a holder of the easement, a person having a third party right of enforcement, and the Attorney General under certain limited circumstances.
The Court said that the language giving rights to the owner of an interest in the real estate was ambiguous because it could also be read as meaning the owner of any real estate encumbered by the easement. The trial court had reviewed the legislative history of the state law and concluded that the legislature did not intend to give standing to property owners under the same easement to enforce the easement against each other. It noted that the model act permitted a state to expand the permissible enforcement standing and Maine had limited that expansion to the Attorney General in certain circumstances. The Supreme Court agreed that the legislature did not intend to authorize actions by “private” attorneys general.
Two dissenting justices said that the statute was not ambiguous at all. They said that an owner of land “burdened by the easement” could bring suit and that the land of the Robbins Estate was burdened by the easement under consideration. They concluded that the statute refers to all of the property burdened by the easement, not only that portion that was being used in violation of the easement.
They pointed out that the Court had held in a case involving use of property in a subdivision that all owners of property within the subdivision had rights to enforce restrictions on other property within the subdivision and that such enforcement rights on a conservation easement would not lead to absurd or illogical results as argued by the majority.
The Court refused to dismiss the claim against the land trust for breach of contract, however, saying that it was unclear at this stage of the proceeding whether the claim was based on another agreement of some sort and not just the easement itself. (Estate of Robbins v. Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, Supreme Court, ME, No. Cum-15-256, 1/26/17.)
YOU NEED TO KNOW
This is one of those decisions that seems to be right primarily because it is final and not because it is persuasive. It seems to assume that only the holder of the easement has an interest in conservation and the original donor doesn’t. The dissent, applying the same rules to the land burdened by the original easement as are applied to owners within a vast subdivision, seems to be more consistent with traditional real estate law, and more consistent with the intent of the original owner. A more difficult question would arise with a separate parcel that was encumbered with an easement as part of an overall effort to protect a large area of separately owned properties separately encumbered by multiple easements.
The Maine statute does give standing to a person having a third party right of enforcement, so an owner who wants to keep the protection on a parcel that is subdivided for sale to another could presumably reserve the right of enforcement in order to avoid an outcome like this. Owners in states with similar laws might consider this approach if they desire to protect the open space when selling off pieces of their larger estates.