In Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Mass., Inc v. Cedar Hill Retreat Center, Inc., the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirms a Superior Court judge’s determination that Defendant Cedar Hill Retreat Center, Inc. (“Cedar Hill”) did not violate a conservation restriction placed upon the coastal lands on the Duxbury Shore despite the trial judge’s misinterpretation of the restriction’s provisions.
In 1969, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted the Conservation Restriction Act (the “Act”), as a means to preserve Massachusetts’ unique natural heritage and recreational resources. A conservation restriction allows landowners to retain their property while permanently restricting development that would affect specific natural conditions found on their land. Each restriction is unique, and the terms will depend on the wishes of the landowner, the state of the property, and the needs to protect habitat described in the restriction. Conservation restrictions allow the owner to use the land while ensuring that the desirable natural conditions on such properties are maintained for the public’s benefit.
In this case, the original owner of the disputed land was the Ballou Channing District of the Unitarian Universalist Association (Ballou Channing). Ballou Channing was a religious organization that used the twelve-acre parcel of uninhabited coastal land located on the Duxbury shore for retreats. In 2008, the neighbors to the Ballou land paid Ballou Channing $3 million to obtain a conservation restriction for the coastal habitat. The neighbors worked with a regional land trust, Plaintiff Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts, Inc. (“Wildlands Trust”), to secure the conservation restriction. Under the terms of the restriction, Wildlands Trust agreed to monitor the coastal land and prevent any activity that would materially impair or harm the premises.
In 2009, Ballou Channing transferred ownership of the property to Defendant Cedar Hill which currently uses the land as a retreat center and rents the buildings on the property to companies, families, and other groups for a fee. This activity is one of the permitted uses of the land under Section III of the conservation restriction. In 2010, Wildlands Trust sent Cedar Hill numerous letters stating that the terms of the restriction only allowed use the land for retreats that promoted preservation of the land. Specifically, the Trust stated that Cedar Hill was barred from hosting overnight retreats and retreats during the day must be religious or charitable in nature. In 2016, Wildlands Trust filed a complaint against Cedar Hill in the Superior Court for, among other things, breach of the conservation restriction. At trial, Wildlands Trust repeated the same arguments raised in its 2010 letters and also argued that Cedar Hill was overusing the land and exposing it to excessive damage from the renter’s vehicles and foot traffic. The trial judge concluded that Cedar Hill’s retreat rentals were permitted activities and, thus, it had not committed a material breach of the restriction.
The judge based his ruling on his interpretation of two separate provisions of Section III of the restriction. The first provision, Section III.B.1, permits use of the coastal lands for the “quiet enjoyment” of nature. The second, Section III.B.3, allows the owner to rent the property for purposes that do not materially impair or harm the wildlife, aesthetics, or ecology of the premises. The judge concluded that Cedar Hill’s rental of the property for retreats was permissible as long as the renters quietly enjoyed the property’s natural features during their stay. Wildlands Trust appealed the decision.
Wildlands Trust’s primary argument on appeal was that the trial judge erroneously interpreted the restriction. The Appeals Court agreed, and found that the judge had conflated the two aforementioned provisions. Specifically, it held that the language of the restriction does not allow owners of the property to rent the land for retreats based on the “quiet enjoyment” language in Section III.B.1. Nonetheless, the Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling since Wildlands Trust had not presented sufficient evidence at trial to demonstrate that Cedar Hill’s use of the property as a retreat materially impaired or harmed the coastal lands. Further, the Appeals Court stated that Wildlands Trust’s reading of the restriction–that the only permissible retreats were retreats focused on affirmatively protecting the land–was far too narrow an interpretation of Section III.B.1 or any other provision contained in the restriction. Ultimately, the Appeals Court found that none of Wildland Trust’s arguments warranted a reversal of the judge’s determination that Cedar Hill did not breach the conservation restriction.
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