Preservationists join legal fight over estate Former Talbot plantation targeted for subdivision

October 22, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

A coalition of preservation groups has joined the legal battle over Myrtle Grove, the 18th-century plantation in Talbot County targeted for subdivision despite the fact it had been preserved under an easement.

The groups -- Preservation Maryland, Land Trust Alliance, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Talbot County Historic Commission, Talbot County Historical Trust and Historic Easton Inc. -- filed a motion in Talbot County Circuit Court yesterday in support of a July lawsuit by Maryland's attorney general that seeks to uphold the easement.

"There are few intact historic estates left," said John C. Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who represents the coalition. "The vast majority have been cut up into small tracts. Here, when you go on the property, it takes you back to Colonial times, before the Declaration of Independence."

A hearing on the coalition's motion has been set for Nov. 6.

Myrtle Grove has been preserved since 1975 when its owner, Margaret Donoho, placed the 160-acre farm under an easement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. After Donoho died in 1989, her family sold the estate for $3 million to Herbert Miller, a prominent Washington developer who restored the mansion, which is at the confluence of the Miles River and Goldsborough Creek, outside Easton.

Agreement broken

In 1994, Miller persuaded the national trust to allow him to create a small subdivision on part of the property. Shortly afterward, however, the trust broke its agreement on the subdivision, prompting a bitter lawsuit by Miller in District of Columbia Superior Court.

The trust has since joined forces with Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is seeking to use the state's charitable trust doctrine to protect the easement. Under that law, Curran argues that the tax deduction given the original owner in exchange for the easement effectively sets up a perpetual charitable contribution to the state.

Tydings hired

Joseph D. Tydings, an attorney hired by Miller and the former U.S. senator from Maryland, has filed motions to dismiss or postpone Curran's lawsuit pending the outcome of Miller's suit in D.C. Superior Court.

"The attorney general is trying to intervene and derail the [D.C.] breach of contract case -- even though he's known about it for three years -- on grounds that the statute on conservation easements does not govern, but that a charitable trust was set," Tydings said yesterday. "It's a new theory, but it's contrary to Maryland law."

The Myrtle Grove case, Murphy says, will set a national precedent for using an easement as a tool for preservation, a 30-year-old conservation maneuver. There are 400 easements in Maryland that protect 180,000 acres in exchange for payments and state and federal tax breaks.

"This is the first case to determine whether trust principals apply to easements," Murphy said. "It will have far-reaching implications for conservation easements across the United States."

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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