Stonegate Family Holdings v Revolutionary Trails

New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, 2010 NY Slip Op 03821, May 6, 2010

Summary judgment upholding the Boy Scouts’ 2002 grant of a conservation easement to NY State that allows public access via a right-of-way that crosses plaintiff-neighbor’s land. At issue was whether the State’s allowing use of the ROW by the public impermissibly converted it into a public way, whether the conservation easement violated terms of a 1963 agreement by the Scouts about use of the right-of-way, and whether the Scouts conveyance to the State of rights to use the right-of-way without conveying their fee interest in their land served by the ROW violated the 1959 instrument creating the right-of-way.

Amandus Watts was the property owner who entered into the ’59 and ‘63 agreements. The 1959 instrument created the right-of-way with an abutter and limited its use to Watts and the abutter, “and their grantees of the premises,” unless the ROW were to become a public road. In 1963 Watts conveyed to the Scouts his land and right to use the ROW and entered into the right-of-way agreement with the Scouts that said these conveyances had been made “upon the express condition that the lands thereby conveyed shall be used and utilized” in a manner inconsistent with the 2002 conservation easement to the State. The court found that use limitations in the ROW agreement were a condition subsequent that could be enforced only by Watts, not the neighbor, under the common law of 1963. Accordingly, the grant of the conservation easement couldn’t be challenged by the plaintiff.

The court also found the Scouts could use the conservation easement to transfer its ROW rights to the State while retaining a fee interest in the property consistently with the 1959 agreement. “Conservation easements are of a character wholly distinct from the easements traditionally recognized at common law and are excepted from many of the defenses that would defeat a common-law easement, including that it be appurtenant to an interest in real property”.

The conveyance of ROW rights to the State did not convert the ROW into a public way, the court held. While finding that the parties to the 1959 ROW instrument probably intended that it would be to their mutual benefit were the road converted to a public way, the court said that under the 2002 conservation easement, “the State is using and permitting access over the right-of-way not in its governmental or municipal capacity, but as the private holder of the right-of-way and an interest in the land.” Accordingly, the result was not creation of a public way.

The decision is available at http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2010/2010_03821.htm.

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