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Korean War vet regrets conservation easement on his land

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By Diana George Chapin

On a hot afternoon in summer, one might imagine Ron Rudolph and Peter Palm resting in the shade chatting about sports or the grandkids. But the two men are so caught up in dealings with their local land trust, it consumes their conversation.

The men own neighboring properties in the Waldo County town of Unity, both of which are affected by the activities of Sebasticook Regional Land Trust (SRLT).

When Rudolph purchased his 114-acre farm in March of 2001, the land was conveyed to him by the previous owner with a two-page deed. In April 2008, a local land protection group purchased an agricultural conservation easement from Rudolph, using Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) funds and money from federal sources. Now an additional 36-page document with covenants encumbers Rudolph’s land in perpetuity.

Rudolph, 79, a disabled Korean War veteran, deeply regrets his decision to place an easement on his land. Having extinguished the right to divide and sell portions of the land and having relinquished a controlling interest in the land to another entity, the property’s value is so decreased he says banks will not allow him to borrow against it.

The easement names Friends of Unity Wetlands as the primary holder, with the State of Maine Department of Agriculture as a the state’s third-party easement holder and the Natural Resources Conservation Service as a federal third-party holder. (Third-party holders typically contribute funds to easement projects, have a weighty say in the defining language of the document and bear the responsibility of enforcing the terms of the easement in the event that primary holder fails to do so.)

Presently, Sebasticook Regional Land Trust is the primary easement holder on the Rudolph property, the result of a name change and increase in scope and mission of the original wetlands group.

“We changed our name when we expanded our service area,” said Jennifer Irving, who has worked as executive director of SRLT since 2005. “Sebasticook Regional Land Trust is eight-years-old now. We started in 2004 as Friends of Unity Wetlands. We were created by a group of community residents with some support from a state agency and The Nature Conservancy.”

Irving explained that around the time she came to the trust, “a pretty wide stakeholder group from the community pulled together” to identify others’ private property over which they desired to purchase conservation easements. The group targeted land by farmland soil type and looked at a “farmland corridor” between Unity and Albion along Route 202, where Rudolph’s land is located.

According to Irving, LMF funds were used to purchase easements on Rudolph’s farm as well as four other SRLT projects, including the purchase of an easement on a farm property owned by a current member of the SRLT board of directors.

One might assume that land trusts carefully draft each phrase of an easement, since the conservation community typically promotes easements as custom-crafted for each property. This was not the case in this LMF—and federally—funded transaction.

According to an attorney who worked on the project, the Rudolph easement started as a “shell” or base document, then was edited and modified by a group of interested parties, including a staffer at the Maine Department of Agriculture and an attorney working for the State of Maine’s Department of Transportation.

As is common with agricultural conservation easements, Rudolph’s easement, which will forever affect every future owner of the land, forbids subdivision and the conversion of the property to non-agricultural uses. It states that the land contains prime farmland, timberland and “is prominently visible from and provides scenic enjoyment to the general public from State Route 202.”

Under its terms, “it is forbidden to dispose of or store rubbish, garbage, building debris, unserviceable vehicles and equipment or parts thereof, or other unsightly or offensive waste material” on the property. It encumbers the water rights on the property, limiting the size of future farm ponds and, while it allows Rudolph to use water for agriculture, forestry and domestic use, he cannot commercially use the water on his property or convey water rights to another party.

The easement says Rudolph and any future property owners cannot stock ponds with fish without written permission from the trust. The owner is permitted by the trust to erect unlighted signs promoting farm activities, so long as they are “located to minimize obstruction of the scenic and open views” across the property.

Rudolph is under no obligation to actively farm his property, but according to the terms of the easement, he and subsequent owners “retain all responsibilities and shall bear all costs and liabilities of any kind related to the ownership, operation, upkeep and maintenance” of the property, including keeping fields open and un-forested.

Should he fail to or be unable to keep the fields cut, the trust or third-party holder “has the right to maintain the fields, either by periodic mowing, haying, bush-hogging, the grazing of livestock, agricultural uses such as gardens or orchards” and the “holder may dispose of the byproducts of such operations to defray the expenses of undertaking such actions.”

Rudolph explains that his personal life before signing the easement was very difficult and placed him in an emotional depression that made it difficult for him in 2008 to analyze the document well. As he peruses the easement now, he can’t believe what he’s signed off on.

“This is just incredible. I’m going to fight this thing,” he said.

Meanwhile, his neighbor, Peter Palm, says he is embroiled in his own fight with SRLT.

Palm’s property abuts the southerly edges of Rudolph’s land and it grants a deeded right of way to a 450-acre-plus parcel to the west. CMP acquired the large parcel and then deeded 434 acres to SRLT on December 2010, as compensation for land developed elsewhere under its Maine Power Reliability Program, the vast upgrade of CMP’s electrical delivery system throughout Maine.

Irving and Palm both said (and recorded deeds show) that before conveying the property to SRLT, CMP deeded 40 acres of the original large parcel to an entity whose owner serves on the SRLT board of directors to resolve a conflict over timber harvesting on an adjacent property, which is also owned by the board member.

Before conveying the land to the two parties, CMP asked Palm to convert the right-of-way to a grant of full public access to their property.

“I said no,” reported Palm. “I went to a big law firm down in Portland and they almost laughed. They said, ‘What are they trying to pull here? You can’t do that. This is over-burdening a right-of-way. It’s 30 feet. There’s no easement for utilities, nothing. They’re trying to play a game. It’s not a state park’.”

“It came down to that we’d start at $35,000 to $40,000 [in legal fees], and it could go on for a while because it’s Central Maine Power,” Palm said. “I am in no position to do that, to fight Central Maine Power, because they could drag their heels. And they actually told me that—you know, that they could drag their heels.

“All I think should happen here is that the land should belong to Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, and they should be able to come in and go out—ingress and egress—and no public access,” he said. “That’s it. The right-of-way is not open to the public.”

After the conveyance of the 434-acre and 40-acre parcels by CMP, Palm says he was harassed by the adjacent landowner, who is also a member of the SRLT board of directors. Palm displayed a letter written by the board member on the member’s business letterhead. The document, dated December 5, 2011, addressed both Palm and Irving and stated the desire to “gift my 40 acres which lies to the west of Peter’s land to the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust and to have a comprehensive right-of-way agreement executed this year.”

Palm said the landowner came to his house and asked him to sign the right-of-way agreement on the spot. But he took the papers and said he wanted to read them first. “I read this,” said Palm, waving a draft of the four-page easement in the air. “Can you believe what they want in here? There’s something seriously wrong with these people. They didn’t listen to one word I said.”

The draft easement presented to Palm seeks to protect the interests of SRLT, naming him and his partner Margaret Ferrisi as the grantors and SRLT as the grantee—even though Palm and Ferrisi had no knowledge of or input on the document’s drafting. The easement defined “full and unrestricted ingress and egress for SRLT, its agents, invitees and assigns, including vehicles and equipment” and, among other things, declared “an easement for a parking area which will accommodate six passenger vehicles to be located on the Palm/Ferrisi property.”

It galls Palm that the land trust would assume and wield such authority over his private property. He presumes the land trust endeavors to acquire public access to the property CMP gave them so they can qualify for a 95% reduction in property taxes for forever-wild land with public access through Maine’s Farmland and Open Space laws.

“They’re turning my dream into my nightmare, is what they’re doing,” said Palm, who hopes to hand his land down to his and Ferissi’s nine heirs. “It’s just big money trying to eat up little people, that’s all it is. They’re destroying what I want to set up for my grandchildren. Here I am, I am a conservationist—and I’ve been in the conservation and landscaping business for 39 years. Here I have this antique farm, and I’m trying to restore the house and keep the property the same and in the family, and I’m paying full taxes. Where’s the common sense here? Are representatives and senators in Maine aware of what’s going on?”

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.

This is part of an ongoing series in The Maine Wire about Maine Land Trusts. Read all articles here.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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