Couple loses land battle

Md. high court rules they can't retrieve 1989 gift to environmental trust

Would have created `loophole'

Patapsco Valley park-area easement deal was not deceptive, judges rule

July 23, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Elkridge couple who claimed that an environmental trust duped them into believing that it would not accept an easement unless they agreed not to subdivide their land have lost a legal challenge.

In a case watched by the land conservation community, the state's high court ruled that the Maryland Environmental Trust did not defraud the couple when it did not explicitly state in 1989 that it would accept the gift of a less valuable easement. (In an easement, a property owner swaps development rights for tax breaks.)

The Court of Appeals' ruling Friday overturned two lower court decisions that conservation groups worried would undermine their easement contracts by opening a door to "buyer's remorse" challenges.

"If the plaintiffs had prevailed, it would have created a unique new loophole, not just for conservation but any sort of charitable gift," said Russell Shay, director of public policy of the Land Trust Alliance, which supported the land trust's position.

A ruling in favor of the couple "would have opened the door to a host of claims after the fact," said Andrew H. Baida, assistant attorney general who argued the case for the land trust.

Kevin Gaynor said last night that he would advise anyone thinking about donating an easement to the Maryland Environmental Trust to read the findings of fact in the lower court rulings, which found the land trust had not been above board in dealing with them.

"We brought this on principle," said he said, adding that had he and his wife won, they were prepared to give the easement to another conservation group.

They argued that the trust misled them into believing that for the state agency to accept the easement in 1989, they had to give up their right to subdivide the property, which is next to Patapsco Valley State Park, for one house. Kevin Gaynor said he had understood the provision to be a requirement. The trust said it was a request.

Kevin Gaynor led neighbors in arranging easements on about 100 acres in Howard County for an area with two historic homes, woods and meadows crossed by Rockburn Branch.

But in 1997, while he was serving as a member of the MET board of trustees, he learned that one neighbor was able to build a home on his land under a deal that the property owner made for his easement.

He unsuccessfully asked the land trust to change his easement. The dispute led him to quit the board in 1998.

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