Estate of Robbins v. Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust

Supreme Judicial Court ME, 2017 ME 17, January 26, 2017: Maine landowner doesn’t have standing to seek enforcement of conservation easement on land of another.

This case interprets a Maine statute to decide whether an owner of land subject to a conservation easement has standing to ask the courts to enforce the restriction as to another parcel of land subject to the same restriction. Both parcels of land were portions of the larger parcel which was the original subject of the easement. The majority of the court ruled that the Maine statute does not give the owner of one parcel standing to seek enforcement as to land of another owner, but it left open the question of whether the plaintiff landowner has a breach of contract claim against the holder of the easement. Two justices dissented.

In Maine, 33 M.R.S. § 476 et. seq. define and govern “conservation easements.”  The parties who may initiate or intervene in a court action affecting a Maine conservation easement are identified in 33 M.R.S. § 478(1). Section 478(1)(A) identifies one of those parties as: “An owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement” [emphasis added]. Subsection (D) identifies the Attorney General (subject to certain exceptions) as another party.

Payson, acting by and through her attorney-in-fact Robbins, granted the conservation easement to the predecessor in interest of the current holder, The Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust (Trust), on roughly 100 acres of land on the Maine coast. Subsequent conveyances left the Estate of Robbins (Estate), successor to the original grantee, owning only a portion of that land and the Town of Cumberland (Town) owning another portion. The Trust agreed that the Town could use its land for a public beach and make various physical changes to it (build a parking lot, resurface the existing access road, relocate an existing bath house and add portable toilets). The Estate sued and on summary judgment the trial court found that the Estate lacked standing to bring any claim. The Estate appealed.

The appellate decision turned on the meaning of the phrase in the statute, “the real property burdened by the easement.” The court found this phrase to be ambiguous as to whether “the” real property means “all of the real property burdened by the easement” or only “the parcel on which enforcement is sought.”  To resolve the ambiguity, the court looked to the common law of servitudes before the advent of the statutory conservation easement, the history of the creation of statutory protections for conservation easements (including the seminal article by William H. Whyte, Jr., Securing Open Space for Urban America: Conservation Easements, Urban Land Inst.-Tech. Bulletin, no. 36, Dec. 1959, at 11-14), the Uniform Conservation Easement Act (UCEA) and the legislative history of the particular Maine statute in question. The court concluded that “had the Legislature intended, in enacting section 478(1), for a broader group of private citizens to have standing to enforce conservation easements upon land that they do not own, it would have said so much more clearly.”  Accordingly, the court held that 33 M.R.S. § 478(1) does not confer standing on the Estate to bring an action to enforce the conservation easement as to the Town land.

Two justices dissented, saying they found no ambiguity in the phrase “the real property burdened by the easement.” They wrote, “‘[T]he real property burdened by the easement’ is a specific reference, and it is a reference to the property described in a conservation easement that is being burdened by that conservation easement. To conclude that ‘the real property burdened by the easement’ refers only to the parcel being altered would require this Court to add to the language of 478(1)(A).”

Both the court majority and the dissent agreed that the case should be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings on the Estate’s claim of breach of contract. The court found itself unable, based on the record before it, “to identify with precision what agreement the Estate alleges has been breached.” If the agreement allegedly breached was the conservation easement, the court’s ruling on the Estate’s standing to bring an enforcement action would mean the Estate lacked standing to bring the breach of contract claim; if the allegedly breached agreement were some other agreement, the Estate might not lack standing.

It should be noted that Maine statutes differentiate among conservation easements (33 M.R.S. § 476 – 479-C), historic “preservation agreements” (33 M.R.S. §1551 – §1555), “trail easements” (33 M.R.S. §1581 – §1585), and “working waterfront covenants” (33 M.R.S. §131 – §136).

Decision available at http://www.courts.maine.gov/opinions_orders/supreme/lawcourt/2017/17me17ro.pdf and eventually at http://courts.maine.gov/opinions_orders/supreme/index.shtml.

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