Preserving historic land Easement revoked: State must uphold integrity of farm's protection agreement in Talbot County case.

July 22, 1998

PRESERVATION easements are an important way to protect significant historic, environmental and farming properties. Owners can leave a perpetual legacy of protection for a favored piece of land, with assurance that it will be preserved. Easements also provide tax benefits, and sometimes payments, for the landowner.

These are strong reasons for defending the integrity of such covenants. They must not become a land banking scheme, in which the owners wait for development opportunities for the properties. Preservation must be preserved.

That is what the state is arguing in a lawsuit it filed to prevent development on a 160-acre farm in Talbot County that had been granted a historical easement.

The former owner placed the land in permanent easement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the current owners wanted to build a small subdivision there. They swapped, with the trust, an adjacent land parcel that was not under easement for the right to develop. They also paid money to the trust.

Land swaps are regularly used when government agencies try to assemble rational, manageable parcels for a park or public open space. Swaps compensate owners for their property at minimal taxpayer expense.

In this case, the issue is whether the trust could legally revoke the easement, even if it may have gained protection for an equally valuable parcel.

Though the trust admits it erred, the state must sue it and the owners to re-establish the intended easement. The owners are also suing to defend their right to build.

The integrity of these preservation easements must be sustained. It's important not for this case alone, but as a precedent in treating other protective easements. Changes in use may be legally permitted in rare cases, but this one is clearly a means for developers to profitably rewrite history.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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