Law Review: Conservation easement to protect land — the proverbial win-win
“A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust or governmental agency that permanently limits land uses to protect the property’s natural, scenic, historical, agricultural, forested, or open-space condition.” (Civil Code section 815.1-3). That is the opening paragraph in today’s case: Sonoma Land Trust v. Peter Thompson.
CONSERVATION EASEMENTS ARE A WIN-WIN
I am a big fan of conservation easements. As the First Appellate District Court of Appeal wrote, conservation easements are a good way to protect large parcels of property from overdevelopment. A conservation easement between a property owner and a land trust is always voluntary – often with a payment from the land trust to the owner who records a conservation easement against the property – often into perpetuity but sometimes for a shorter term. The landowner may use the property as he/she wishes but is limited by the terms of the conservation easement.
For example, the landowner may be able to raise cattle, grow crops and otherwise farm as usual but may not subdivide the property.
In our region, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and the Feather River Land Trust have done remarkable work protecting large parcels – with property owners more than happy to do so with tax benefits and compensation from the trust.
CONSERVATION EASEMENTS ARE BINDING CONTRACTS
Like all good things, on rare occasion conservation easements are violated by the property owner. Peter and Toni Thompson own land near Glen Ellen, California that was subject to a recorded conservation easement granted by the previous owner in favor of the Sonoma Land Trust. The Thompsons intentionally violated the easement by uprooting and dragging mature oak trees from the easement property to their newly constructed home on an adjoining parcel, killing the trees in the process. They also bulldozed a new road, graded parts of the property, dumped dredge spoils taken from a pond on another property, and caused other damage. Peter Thompson tried to prevent the Sonoma Land Trust from inspecting the property and repeatedly lied about what they had done.
As a last resort, the Trust filed suit seeking to enforce the terms of the easement which of course did not allow killing mature oak trees. As the trial court later wrote, the Thompsons aggressively challenged the lawsuit and maintained a “take-no-prisoners approach through trial.” The contentious litigation spanned four and a half years, culminating in a 19-day trial.
The trial court ultimately held the Thompsons responsible and granted the Trust reimbursement of its attorney’s fees in the amount of almost $3 million. Ouch.
The Thompson’s appealed the award of attorney’s fees.
SONOMA LAND TRUST PREVAILS
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees last month, noting the Trust’s attorneys “complete and comprehensive victory” against a “well-funded, vigorous, hardline defense.”
I guess you can say the Thompsons got what they deserved. They purchased the property bound by the recorded conservation easement and intentionally violated it, and in the end, paid dearly. Such flagrant violations are rare. The Sonoma County Superior Court and the Court of Appeal did the right thing.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.
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