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Estate of Robbins v. Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust

Supreme Court of Maine

January 26, 2017

ESTATE OF MERRILL P. ROBBINS
v.
CHEBEAGUE & CUMBERLAND LAND TRUST et al.

          Argued: March 1, 2016

          Natalie L. Burns, Esq. (orally) and Alyssa C. Tibbetts, Esq., Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry, Portland, for appellee Town of Cumberland

          Paul F. Driscoll, Esq., and Russell B. Pierce, Jr., Esq. (orally), Norman, Hanson & DeTroy, LLC, Portland, for appellee Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust

          R. Reeve Wood III, Esq., Maine Farmland Trust, Inc., Belfast, for amicus curiae Maine Farmland Trust, Inc.

          Lauren E. Parker, Asst. Atty Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for amicus curiae Office of the Attorney General

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, and JABAR, JJ.

          Majority: SAUFLEY. C.T.. and MEAD and GORMAN, JJ.

          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶l] The appeal in this matter requires us to determine whether a private owner of land encumbered by a conservation easement may bring a lawsuit seeking the enforcement of the easement on other land that is not owned by that landowner and in which the landowner has no other legal interest. Here, the Estate of Merrill P. Robbins appeals from a judgment of the Superior Court (Cumberland County, Mills, J.) dismissing for lack of standing[1]the Estate's complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and damages based on the decision of the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust-the holder of a conservation easement-to allow the Town of Cumberland, which also owns land subject to the easement, to develop its land for public recreational use. Except with respect to the Estate's breach of contract claim, we agree with the Superior Court that the Estate lacks standing, and we affirm the dismissal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following facts derive from the Estate's complaint, the deed of the conservation easement at issue, and other public documents presented on appeal, the authenticity of which was not challenged on appeal.[2] In 1997, Marion B. Payson, acting by and through her attorney-in-fact Merrill P. Robbins, created a conservation easement by deed. The Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust is the current holder of the easement as the successor to the original grantee, Cumberland Mainland and Islands Trust, Inc. The land impressed with the easement comprises roughly 100 acres of land on the coast in Cumberland, referred to as "the Property" throughout the deed of the easement. The conservation easement's stated purpose is to retain the Property "predominantly in its scenic, natural, and open space condition for conservation purposes and to prevent any use of the Property that will significantly impair or interfere with the conservation values of the Property and the Property's natural resources and associated ecosystems." This statement of purpose is consistent with the statutory requirement that "[a] conservation easement... include a statement of the conservation purposes of the easement, the conservation attributes associated with the real property and the benefit to the general public intended to be served by the restriction on uses of the real property subject to the conservation easement." 33 M.R.S. §477-A(1)(2016).

         [¶3] The deed also specifically noted the importance of the easement holder's primary purpose to "promot[e] for the benefit of the general public the preservation of natural resources in the Town of Cumberland and County of Cumberland, including land and water resources, the plant and animal life thereon, and unique scenic, natural, and historic sites." (Emphasis added.) Again, this purpose comports with the requirements of Maine law that a conservation easement must inure to "the benefit [of] the general public." Id.

         [¶4] Following several conveyances of sections of the original parcel, the Estate now owns only a portion of the original 100 acres of land subject to the conservation easement. The Town of Cumberland has purchased another part of the 100 acres, which it acquired after the easement was created, and a real estate developer has acquired other land subject to the easement.

         [¶5] The Town has received conditional approval from the Cumberland Planning Board to allow the use of its property for a public beach. The Town plans to construct a parking lot, resurface the existing access road with reclaimed asphalt, relocate an existing bath house, and add portable toilets.

         [¶6] As holder of the conservation easement and successor to the grantee named in the deed, the Land Trust is, by the easement's terms, primarily responsible for enforcing the terms of the easement. See also 33 M.R.S. § 478(1)(B) (2016). The Land Trust has determined, and has informed the Town, that the Town's plans are permitted under the terms of the conservation easement. Although the Land Trust concluded that the proposed changes would expand public use of the Property, which would have "impacts on the land, the shore and the water, " the Land Trust stated that its goal was to achieve balance between resource protection and increased public access to the land.

          [¶7] The Estate, although not an owner of the land at issue, communicated to the Land Trust and the Town its concerns that the Town's plan did not comply with the terms of the conservation easement and that the Land Trust was violating its obligations as holder of the easement. On December 18, 2014, the Estate filed a complaint in the Superior Court naming the Land Trust and the Town as defendants. The four-count complaint sought a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and damages and costs, and included a breach of contract claim against the Land Trust.

         [¶8] Upon the Town's and the Land Trust's motions to dismiss pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the court dismissed the Estate's complaint in its entirety, concluding that the Estate lacked standing to initiate an action to enforce the conservation easement as it relates to the Town's property. The court interpreted the statutorily provided grant of standing, which applies to "[a]n owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement, " 33 M.R.S. § 478(1)(A) (2016) (emphasis added), to be limited to the owner of an interest in the real property that may actually be subject to development or another use allegedly inconsistent with the terms of the conservation easement. The court concluded that, in this context, the statutory language does not include owners of other unrelated property that happens to be burdened by the same easement. The court further concluded that the Estate was not authorized to sue by virtue of any "special interest" standing and that the deed of the conservation easement did not authorize enforcement by one property holder against another. The Estate timely appealed.[3]

         II. DISCUSSION

         [¶9] The question presented is whether landowners with no ownership or other rights to land on which a use is proposed may seek a judicial determination of whether the proposed use on that land is permitted by the terms of a conservation easement. The Estate contends that it has standing to bring a claim to enforce the terms of the conservation easement as to the Town's land pursuant to the plain language of section 478(1) because the Estate owns an interest in real property that is also burdened by the easement, even if the dispute does not concern a use proposed on the Estate's property. See 33 M.R.S. § 478(1)(A).

         [¶10] Unless a party has standing to sue, that party's complaint is properly dismissed. See, e.g., Nevin v. Union Tr. Co., 1999 ME 47, ¶¶ 41-42, 726 A.2d 694. Standing, in this context, is fully addressed by the statute. The laws codified at 33 M.R.S. §§ 476 to 479-C (2016) apply to the conservation easement, see 33 M.R.S. §479-A(1); P.L. 1985, ch. 395, § 3 (effective Sept. 19, 1985), and we look to section 478(1) to determine standing. That statute specifies who may initiate or intervene in an action affecting a conservation easement:

1. Action or intervention. An action affecting a conservation easement may be brought or intervened in by:
A. An owner of an interest in the real property burdened by the easement;
B. A holder of the easement;
C. A person having a 3rd-party right of enforcement; or
D. The Attorney General; except that the Attorney General may initiate action seeking enforcement of a conservation easement only when the parties designated as having the right to do so under the terms of the conservation easement:
(1) Are no longer in legal existence;
(2) Are bankrupt or insolvent;
(3) Cannot be contacted after reasonable diligence to do so; or
(4) After 90 days' prior written notice by the Attorney General of the nature of the asserted failure, have failed to take reasonable actions to bring about compliance with the conservation easement.

33 M.R.S. §478(1).

         [¶11] We review de novo the interpretation of a statute. See Strout v. Cent. Me. Med. Ctr.,2014 ME 77, ¶ 10, 94 A.3d 786. "In construing a statute our duty is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature as evidenced by the language of the statute." Concord Gen. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Patrons-Oxford Mut. Ins. Co.,411 A.2d 1017, 1020 (Me. 1980). "We will construe a statute based on its plain meaning in the context of the statutory scheme, and only if the statute is ambiguous will we look to extrinsic indicia of ...


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