As Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals said in its opinion last week in the case of McClure v. Montgomery County Planning Board of MNCPCC, “few cases inflame such deep passions as a dispute involving individual property rights.” This is particularly true when a person’s home is involved. This case illustrates the importance, when buying property, of the buyer making sure he is aware of any recorded rights someone else may have over the land.
The opinion indicates that in 2000 McClure purchased a lot of a little over 5 acres in Laytonsville. A developer some years before had obtained approval from the Planning Board for the subdivision, but by the time it was finalized the Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law had been passed requiring forest conservation in parts of the County. A Conservation Easement Agreement was recorded in the land records, establishing a forest conservation easement (FCE) which limited owner’s rights to remove trees on parts of their lots, including the one McClure later bought.
He build a house on the lot, built a barn and put up a fence, and had horses on the property. During his process he learned the specific boundaries of the easement, and the Planning Board notified him he had violated the FCE. After meeting with officials, he ignored violation notices and the Board then held a hearing on the violations of the easement. More than two years later the Board issues an order fining him over $100,000 and ordering remedial action including requiring planting of trees and removal of impervious surfaces he had installed.
McClure appealed to the Circuit Court, which upheld the Board’s authority to enforce the FCE, but ordering it to reconsider the fine and remedial action. When McClure immediately appealed again, the intermediate appellate Court again upheld the Board’s action. It rejected his claim he was not aware of the FCE, noting that he signed several documents at the closing on the property that referenced it, and that a proper title search would also have disclosed it. The Court also affirmed the power of the Planning Board to enforce the easement, including ordering civil fines and remedial action.
This illustrates how careful we must all be when purchasing property to make sure we know if there are limitations on how we can use it.