Ecotone Farm, LLC v. Ward (Ecotone IV)

U.S. Dist. Court, D. New Jersey, Civ. No. 2:11-5094(KM) (MAH), November 21, 2016: State law claims against conservation easement holder not dismissed.

The relevant cast of characters in this matter are Huff, managing member of Ecotone Farm LLC (Ecotone), the Plaintiffs; the Wards, neighbors to the farm property, Defendants; Fox, the Township Engineer, also a Defendant; and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF), holder of a conservation easement on a portion of Huff’s property, also a Defendant.

This District Court decision denies a motion to dismiss state law claims against NJCF based on its involvement in a matter which began as a dispute between Huff and the Wards. The decision, issued as “not for publication,” does not address the substance of the claims but may be of interest to conservation and preservation easement holders. Readers should note that under the rules of federal court civil procedure, for the purposes of a motion to dismiss a claim the facts alleged in the complaint by the moving party — Huff, in this case — are accepted by the court as true.  These allegations are set out in a decision of the Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit, in Ecotone Farm LLC v. Ward, No. 14-3625, 2016 WL 335837, January 28, 2016 (Ecotone III) (a non-precedential decision), and of the District Court in Ecotone Farm LLC v. Ward, Civ. No. 2:11-5094 (KM)(MAH), July 23, 2014 (Ecotone II), which the 3rd Circuit in part overruled in Ecotone III. The following report, therefore, states these alleged facts as presented by the court.  NJCF and the other Defendants undoubtedly have a different version of the events.

The dispute began between neighbors Huff and the Wards, about Huff’s efforts to renovate a house and two barns on the farm property, and a driveway shared by the Ecotone and Ward properties. The dispute escalated as the Wards involved the local Township and the Township engineer, Fox. During the dispute one of the Wards was elected to the Township Committee and thereby had some authority over Fox and allegedly enlisted Fox to interfere with Huff’s renovation. Ward made “baseless” reports to environmental authorities about Huff’s activities on the property “as a means of harassment and instructed … Fox, to do the same.”

The conservation easement held by NJCF permitted Huff to maintain and replace existing structures but prohibited “dumping or placing of soil or other substances or materials as landfill and … dumping or placing of trash, waste or unsightly or offensive materials … except for those materials generated from dredging the pond….” As the dispute continued, NJCF sent Huff a letter about a portion of the property near the barn where soil and materials involved in the renovation were temporarily stored, which NJCF claimed violated the conservation easement. Fox also received a copy of the NJCF’s letter and sent Huff a letter saying that the Township could not approve any improvements to the driveway area that would violate the conservation easement. Huff submitted a revised soil disturbance plan but then heard nothing from Fox for months. Meanwhile, Fox forwarded the revised plan to the NJCF to seek its position, and the NJCF wrote back to object to the plan. Fox continued to correspond with the NJCF and to seek its consent throughout the Township’s permitting process, which supposedly gave the NJCF potential leverage over Huff to renegotiate the terms of its conservation easement. Fox provided Ward and the NJCF with copies of documents relating to the renovation. Fox and Ward also forwarded documentation of the NJCF’s opposition to the renovation to other Township departments, including the Health Department, which would later deny Huff’s application to drill a new well on the property because of its location within the conservation easement. In summary, Huff seems to have alleged that NJCF was working in league with the Wards and Fox so NJCF could “maximize its influence over the property.” Huff alleged that the Wards, Fox, and NJCF “leveraged the easement to violate Huff’s property rights by impeding construction and allowing Fox and [Fox’s firm] to profit from baseless engineering charges.”

The current decision (Ecotone IV) is in response to the motion of NJCF and one of the Wards to dismiss the state law causes of action against them in Huff’s Complaint. The causes of action against NJCF were civil conspiracy; declaratory judgment as to the parties’ rights under the easement; and prima facie tort.

Huff’s Complaint alleged the existence of an understanding of which NJCF was a part having as its object the commitment of common law and constitutional torts. The Complaint alleged that NJCF “took baseless positions in relation to regulatory processing of Huff’s land use applications … [and] colluded with the [Fox] to further its own overbroad interpretation of the easement.” The court wrote that the idea that NJCF acted “in concert with Fox and Ward, to further their similar interest, is far from an inescapable inference, but it is sufficiently plausible at the pleading stage.” Thus, the civil conspiracy count against NJCF was allowed to proceed.

Huff’s motion for declaratory judgment could stand only if there was a genuine controversy about his rights under the conservation easement, and the court found that there was enough of a disagreement about interpreting the easement’s language that it was inappropriate to make a legal determination on that question at this stage, so that count also was allowed to proceed.

Lastly, NJCF (and Ward) argued that the count of prima facie tort should be dismissed because it really didn’t allege anything that wasn’t alleged by the rest of Huff’s complaint and therefore was superfluous. The court disagreed, saying that, “Because other counts are going forward, there is no pressing need to address the redundancy argument; there will be time enough [later in the proceedings] to narrow the theories.”

In summary, NJCF lost in its bid to have Huff’s Complaint against it dismissed, and the litigation will continue at the District Court.

Ecotone IV decision available at http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/new-jersey/njdce/2:2011cv05094/263972/136/0.pdf?ts=1479820801.

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