After almost six years, the Maryland Court of Appeals shuts down a public interest group’s attempt to block the creation of a dairy farm creamery. The court found that the third party group did not have standing because the easement they sought to enforce did not include them. A long fight for someone who, as it turned out, had no skin in the game.
Here is what happened. Defendants own an organic dairy farm that is located on 199 acres in the Long Green Valley area of Baltimore County. The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) is a statutorily created organization that buys easements on farm owner’s lands, making them promise that they will only use it for farming purposes. Competition to get into the program is fierce, but in 1997, Bellevale sold a MALPF easement to MALPF for $796,500.
In 2007, the defendant proposed to build a 10,000 square foot creamery operation on the land and received approval from the MALPF because it created and stored milk, cheese, and other dairy products. The terms were compliant with MALPF’s statutory and organizational goals. However, another land preservation organization, the Long Green Valley Association (LGVA), took issue with the creamery and filed several complaints and emergency hearings with the Deputy Zoning Commissioner for Baltimore County. All the bureaucratic avenues ultimately declared that the creamery counted as a “farm” and was being created for “farming purposes.” Finally, the LGVA filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Baltimore County.
In May 2008 LGVA made a complaint asking the court for the correct enforcement of the MALPF easement, the declaration that the creamery violates the easement because of its commercial/industrial use, and an injunction preventing the defendant from building the creamery. Bellevale made a motion for summary judgment, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing, and MALPF said it was acting within the statutory limits and was insulated from judicial scrutiny. The judge agreed with Bellevale and dismissed the counts. The Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals both affirmed.
The plaintiffs argued that because the MALPF easement was a given to a government actor, it counted as a charitable trust, which enabled third-party persons (such as the LGVA) to ask the court to enforce the easement as “interested parties.” In order to determine if the easement was to be considered a trust, the Court looked at the specific language and intent of the parties. Trusts are legal title that is held by one or more persons in which an equitable obligation exists to use the title for the benefit of another (or in the case of charitable trusts, to the community). Charitable trusts must be express, and it is the LGVA’s burden to show that one existed.
Contrary to private trusts, no particular language must be used, but the intention to be in a fiduciary relationship to benefit the community must be clearly stated. The Court holds that the language of trust creation is ambiguous at best, and the explicit terms only include the Grantor and Grantee– there is no instruction for the Grantor to accommodate anyone else. In fact, the deed made a point to state that the right of public entry is not created, and that the MALPF only could review proposals for use of the land.
Next, the Court finds that the creamery is compatible with the intended application of the easement. The easement says nothing about curbing “urban blight”, and the sale of agricultural products does not violate the ban on commercial or industrial use. The Court claimed that the petitioner confused the purpose of MALPF; just because it is a government entity which practices and results benefit the populace at large does not mean it is a charitable organization. MALPF is designed to increase land profitability while ensuring that agricultural methods are used.
You can find the opinion here.