Updated: Jul 11, 2020
This post is not legal advice. See here for the site’s reposting policy.
I have written a few times on how the legal idea 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 actually be solved by a favorable decision. In some cases, the legislature may limit who may have standing even further. With conservation easements, for example, a state legislature may limit those who may enforce the conservation easement to the holder of the easement (such as a land trust). The Maine Supreme Court recently found a landowner of conserved property did not have standing to enforce the easement on neighboring property (Estate of Robbins, 2017).
In this case, Payson created a conservation easement by deed on 100 acres in 1997. The deed was granted to Cumberland Mainland and Islands Trust. The deed is currently held by Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust and the 100 acres is now held by three different owners (Estate of Robbins (the Estate), Town of Cumberland, and a developer).
Problems arose when the town received approval to develop its portion of the 100 acres for a beach, a sixty-car parking lot, a bathhouse, and related amenities. The developer was looking at developing ten house lots on their portion of the 100 acres. The Land Trust reviewed the developer’s proposed plan and found it to be within the terms of the conservation easement. Then 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 may 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 third-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 Estate’s complaint was dismissed 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 only to 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 to the Maine Attorney General. This allows 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 easement’s terms. 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 in rejecting this view. To the dissent, the majority’s view made no sense; the Land Trust had signed off on plans that could potentially not conform with the easement’s terms. The majority’s view also did 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 reversed the district court on dismissing a breach of contract claim against the Land Trust. Because the case was dismissed before trial, little is in 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. Fred grants a conservation easement of 100 acres on Blackacre Farms 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 the easement?
This decision limits who can bring enforcement actions in court, at least in Maine. In my example, 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.
While this is a Maine court decision with little impact on Maryland, it is worth thinking about how a similar challenge here would be handled. In 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.