Rich People vs. Wildlife Conservation Trusts

| Tue May 22, 2012 1:35 PM EDT

It's long been clear that the super rich often believe that the law is just a minor annoyance that expensive lawyers can find away around, especially if it involves off-shore tax havens. Now, apparently, some of them are training their sights on legal restrictions that prevent them from cutting down trees to maximize the panoramic views of their country estates or expand their private jet runways.

Over the past few decades, land owners hoping to preserve wilderness areas or green space have created hundreds of conservation easements that they have then donated to land trusts. This is supposed to ensure that any future owners of the property abide by the environmental conservation restrictions. But lately, according to the New York Times, the nation's land trusts are winding up in epic legal battles with property owners who have bought land covered by such easements and proceeded to ignore them.

The Times reports on cases where wealthy property owners had ignored conservation easements to cut down hundreds of trees on wetlands, built a gravel road over a protected trout stream, and installed a manorial lawn and gardens on land required to remain in a natural wilderness state. Such flagrant violations have forced underfunded land trusts to sue the property owners to prevent more violations and to remedy the damage if possible. The Times notes that the legal battles have a common denominator: "the wealth of the property owners challenging restrictions." The legal battles have become so ubiquitious that the land trusts have been forced to set up an insurance company to help them pay the bills. The trusts typically win the cases, but which can take a decade or more to resolve, as the Times reports:

In East Haddam, Conn., defending one case against a landowner took almost a decade and cost the local trust $415,000, about half of which was covered by insurance. "It nearly brought us to our knees," said Anita Ballek, a co-founder of the East Haddam Land Trust.

The story was buried in the Sunday Times, but was a depressing piece of news, especially for people who had set up the easements in the first place to preserve their little corner of nature. The penalty for cutting down hundreds of protected trees could be a decade of expensive litigation, but the rich offenders will continue to enjoy the unobstructed views from their verandas in the meantime. And of course, once old tress are cut down, it will be decades before they return to their original state, if ever.

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