Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Nature Conservancy, Inc. v. Larry Sims

May 21: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, case No. 09-5634. Appealed from the Eastern District of Kentucky at Lexington. The Appeals Court explains that Larry and Marsha Sims appealed a district court order holding that the Sims violated a conservation easement that was part of a real estate purchase agreement regarding The Nature Conservancy's (the Conservancy) sale and the Sims's purchase of a 100.10 acre farm in Kentucky. The district court granted the Conservancy's summary judgment motion after determining that the Sims violated the easement by filling in a sinkhole and thereby substantially altering the topography of the land. In a subsequent judgment, the district court awarded the Conservancy $99,796.41 in attorneys' fees, costs, and expenses. The Sims now appeal both judgments.
    The Appeals Court ruled in a split decision that, "The district court properly ruled, however, that the Sims violated the plain language of the easement. The district court also did not abuse its discretion in awarding the Conservancy reasonable attorneys' fees and expenses." The real estate purchase agreement that included the conservation easement is at the heart of this litigation. Section 1 of the easement states that "the purpose of th[e] Easement [is] to assure that the Protected Property will be retained forever substantially undisturbed in its natural condition and to prevent any use . . . that will significantly impair or interfere with the Conservation Values of the Protected Property."
    In the dissenting opinion, one Justice said, "My colleagues have overlooked and make no reference to or analysis of Section 3 of the easement agreement between the parties. This section allows the owner to engage in all normal rights of a landowner except those "expressly prohibited." The agreement does not expressly prohibit filling the sinkhole at issue. The sinkhole at issue was next to the defendant's home at his farm. It was an unsightly hole in the ground, a few feet deep, according to the pictures in the record, with half dead trees and brush growing out of it. Due to the irregular terrain, it could not be mowed, farmed, landscaped or used for a garden or anything else. It is an eyesore. . . No one in this case has attempted to show or describe what possible value the sinkhole has for purposes of historic and environmental preservation. . ."
    Access the complete opinion (click here). [#Land, #CA6]