Court of Special Appeals of Maryland finds ambiguity in easement and reversed trial court order to demolish dwelling

This week, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland found an ambiguity in an open space and conservation easement and reversed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment. In Roxbury View, LLC v. Edward McCauley, the Court held that Maryland Environmental Trust’s victory at the trial court – mandating that a new residential dwelling be demolished within six (6) months –would be short lived as the agreement did not so strictly limit construction on 285 acres of open farmland in western Howard County.

The easement at issue provided that no “building, facility, or other structure” was permitted to be erected or constructed unless either: the structure replaces a pre-existing structure; or, if “such structure is a new structure which is necessary for and directly related to the continued agricultural use of the property.” Before the trial court, MET successfully argued that the agreement prohibited the owners from erecting any residential dwelling that is not a replacement dwelling. The Court of Special Appeal disagreed. While it was possible to read the easement in such a restrictive manner, the agreement did not compel such a reading.

Noting that a “residence” is a form of “structure” under the agreement, the Court looked at the trial record to determine whether a reasonable person could interpret the agreement to mean that an owner could erect a residence if it was “necessary for and directly related” to the use of the property. The servient property owners had proffered affidavits from farmers testifying that a farm manager’s round-the-clock physical presence was both “necessary” and “critical” to farming operations. As a residential dwelling could reasonably be viewed as a “structure” which is “necessary” to the continued agricultural use of the property, the Court concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment and remanded the matter. The owners’ trial counsel served their clients well in making certain that the record contained sufficient evidence upon which the Court could rely in a proper review of the dispute.

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