The $4 million estate on the Connecticut River in Lyme had everything: a six-bedroom home, a pool and a dock, all surrounded by 17 acres of native meadows, brush and woodlands. It also had a decades-old conservation restriction, held by the local land trust, requiring the property to remain largely in its “natural wilderness” state.
But after buying the land in 2007, Brian and Beverly Platner went for a more manicured look, installing a sweeping lawn and gardens with sculptured borders.
The Lyme Land Conservation Trust was not pleased, and in 2009, it sued to enforce the restrictions, which were adopted in the 1980s. In turn, the Platners sued the trust’s president, accusing him of defaming them.
When landowners defy established conservation restrictions - and informal resolution efforts fail - the country’s 1,700 or so land trusts find that they have little option but to take them to court. “Whoever holds the easement has an absolute responsibility to defend it,” said Darla Guenzler, executive director of the California Council of Land Trusts.
But some trust officials worry that the litigation costs could ruin their largely volunteer organizations and erode their ability to protect land. The national Land Trust Alliance came up with the idea of creating an insurance company to help trusts with legal costs, and it petitioned the Internal Revenue Service to grant the new company, called Terra Firma, nonprofit status. On Thursday, the I.R.S. approval came through.
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