Court orders Lyme property owner to pay $650,000 for violations
New London — The property owners involved in a lawsuit brought by the Lyme Land Conservation Trust for violations of a conservation easement on their Selden Road property in Lyme have been ordered to pay a total of $650,000 in damages and legal fees.
New London Superior Court Judge Joseph Q. Koletsky issued a written decision Thursday awarding the trust $350,000 in damages related to the restoration of the property's protected areas and $300,000 for attorneys' fees.
In the lawsuit that began six years ago, the land trust had argued that property owner Beverly Platner had landscaped her property — including by installing lawns and an irrigation system — despite an easement placed on parts of the property at 66 Selden Road.
In court documents, Platner, who purchased the property in 2007, said the restriction was unclear and invalid.
Paul Selden, the original owner of the property along the Connecticut River, had placed the restriction, held by the land trust, on the property in 1981.
Judge Koletsky ruled in favor of the land trust earlier this month and issued an order Thursday on damages and attorney fees, following a hearing on Tuesday.
"The court finds that the defendant's actions were willful and caused great damage to the protected area's natural condition, which the defendant was obligated to maintain," Thursday's written order states. The court also found that Platner's husband, Brian Platner, was "acting as the agent of the defendant with respect to the activities performed on the property."
"The decision is a very thoughtful, well-reasoned one, in our opinion, and it would be difficult to overturn," said Attorney Tracy Collins of Waller, Smith & Palmer, who is representing the land trust. John Pritchard, the land trust's president, was another one of the lawyers representing the trust.
New London-based attorney Santa Mendoza, who is representing the Platner family, reiterated a comment made earlier this month expressing disappointment in the ruling. She said "the legal team has been meeting in the last several days to make decisions on what the next course of action should be, and those decisions have not yet been made."
The Platners could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.
Lyme Land Conservation Trust Executive Director George Moore said while the land trust is pleased with the outcome of the court case, "there's not a lot of joy in our hearts," since the trust wished the matter could have been settled much sooner. But Moore said the land trust, a nonprofit that serves the public and receives donated land and conservation easements, had a responsibility to defend the easement.
"We had a duty, and we couldn't shirk it," he said.
Moore also said the decision sets a "very powerful precedent" in an area where there is little case law. He said it will be an ongoing issue for land trusts that an easement is placed on a property — 30, 40 or 50 years ago — and then a second or third owner with different conservation views than the first owner could move in.
State Attorney General George Jepsen had intervened on behalf of the land trust to "protect the public interest in conservation restrictions," according to court documents.
The court will hold a hearing on specific proposals to restore the property on May 27.
Judge Koletsky Order (PDF)
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