This post is not legal advice
I have written a few times on how the legal principle of standing can impact your ability to bring a lawsuit. In many cases, standing can require showing an injury-in-fact, causation relationship between the injury and the action of the defendant, and likelihood that the injury can be solved by a favorable decision and is not merely speculative. But in some cases, the legislature may limit who can have standing even further. For example, with conservation easements, a state legislature may limit those who can enforce the conservation easement to the holder of the easement (such as a land trust). The Maine Supreme Court recently found landowner of preserved property did not have standing to enforce the easement on neighboring property (Estate of Robbins, 2017).
In 1997, Payson created a conservation easement by deed on 100 acres with Cumberland Mainland and Islands Trust. Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust currently holds the deed and three different owners (Estate of Robbins, Town of Cumberland, and a developer) own the 100 acres.
Problems arose when the Town received approval to develop their portion of the 100 acres for a beach, a sixty-car parking lot, a bathhouse, and related amenities. The developer is looking at developing ten house lots on the developer’s portion of the 100 acres. The Land Trust reviewed the proposed plan and found it to be within the terms of the conservation easement. The Estate brought an action to enforce the conservation easement.
The district court found that the Estate did not have standing to enforce the easement. In Maine, the legislature has limited who can bring an action to enforce the terms of a conservation easement. Standing is limited to:
- An owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement;
- A holder of the easement;
- A person having a 3rd-party right of enforcement; or
- The Attorney General . . .
Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 33, § 478(1)(A) – (D) (2017)). The district court concluded that the Estate was not an “owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement” under the terms of § 478. The district court dismissed the Estate’s complaint for lack of standing, and the Estate appealed.
On appeal, the main issue was how broadly to confer standing. “An owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement” could mean any real property owner burdened by the conservation easement or only the property owner burdened by the easement. The state’s supreme court looked at the legislative history of the statute to determine how broadly the legislature had intended to confer standing. The supreme court agreed with the district court that the legislature had intended to confer standing to enforce the easement to only the property owner burdened by the easement.
The supreme court agreed that the legislature had rejected the broad view of standing in bringing actions to enforce a conservation easement. The legislature has also conferred the power to enforce the conservation easement with the Maine Attorney General. Allowing the Attorney General to enforce the terms of a conservation easement as a representative of the public when the easement holder fails to enforce the terms of the easement gives the public a voice in the process. To the court, the view that the Attorney General can enforce the terms of an easement for the public supported the view the legislature rejected broadly conferring the ability to enforce on the public.
Two justices dissented rejecting this view. To the dissent, the majority’s view makes no sense; the Land Trust has signed off on plans that could potentially not conform with the terms of the easement. The majority’s view also does not take into account previous decisions by the Maine Supreme Court that conferred standing on any real property owner burdened by the conservation easement. The dissent would have found the Estate had standing.
The supreme court did reverse the district court on dismissing a breach of contract claim against the Land Trust. Dismissing the case before trial allowed little to be the record about the breach of contract claim. The court reversed to allow the Estate an opportunity to prove the breach of contract claim.
So why should you care? Let me use an example to explain this, Fred grants a conservation easement Blackacre (100 acres) to Farm Land Preservation. Fred later sells 20 acres to his son, Tom. The remaining 80 acres eventually passes to his nephew, Craig. Craig sells his 80 acres to the county. Should Tom or the county have the ability to enforce the terms of the conservation easement against the other? Should we just rely on Farm Land Preservation to enforce? What if similar to the case above, the land trust signs off on the plans, should one of the parties have the ability to enforce?
This decision limits who can bring enforcement actions in court, at least in Maine. In my example above, neither Tom nor the county could enforce the terms of the same conservation easement against each other. The dissent would have allowed this type of challenge to take place.
I do realize that this is a Maine court decision with little impact on Maryland. But it is worth thinking about how to handle a similar challenge in Maryland. Looking back at my example, Fred, Tom, and Craig could have worked with an attorney to ensure that either party preserved the right to enforce the conservation easement against the other.
Estate of Robbins v. Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, 2017 ME 17.