Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 21, 2020

WY Supreme Court Holds Conservation Easement Allowed Construction of One Single-Family Residential Structure

This post was authored by Mathew Loescher, Esq.
Appellants, Four B Properties, LLC and Ranch 10, LLC were owned by Gary Binning. Appellants sought declaratory relief after the Conservation Easement administrator, The Nature Conservancy, rejected Appellants’ plan to construct a main residence, a guest house, and a caretaker’s quarters on each of its two parcels.
As it pertains to this case, the Wyoming Uniform Conservation Easement Act §§ 34-1-201 through 207, applies retroactively. As such, any conservation easement, including the Moulton Conservation Easement, was “considered an interest in property within that class of interests known as an ‘easement,’ regardless of the date the conservation easement was created.” In addition to the “single-family residential structure,” Mr. Binning was entitled to construct “associated improvements.” These “associated improvements,” while not defined by the Conservation Easement, “may include barns, garages, shops, greenhouses, storage sheds and corrals.” The Conservation Easement permitted one single-family residential structure, and § 5(B) explicitly prohibits the construction of any structure, “except as permitted herein.” Thus, the court found that to define “associated improvements” so that they include a second residential structure, such as a guest house or caretaker’s quarters, would render meaningless both the allowance for one single-family residential structure and the prohibition against unpermitted structures.
Mr. Binning contended the Conservation Easement limited construction to one residential structure only if he exceeded the requirements of the Teton County Land Development Regulations. Mr. Binning further argued the Teton County Land Development Regulations’ definition of “accessory residential units” included dwelling units incidental or subordinate to the primary residence and also included guest houses or caretaker’s quarters. Here, the Conservation Easement § 7(N) set forth that any conflict between the Conservation Easement and any Teton County zoning restrictions “shall be resolved by the more restrictive provision”. Since there was no demonstration that the Conservation Easement conflicted with or should be controlled by a more restrictive provision from the Land Development Regulations, the court held the Teton County Land Development Regulations did not control the issue of whether the Conservation Easement permitted the construction of a guest house or caretaker’s quarters on each of Mr. Binning’s parcels of property. Moreover, the court held that the doctrine of strict construction in favor of the free use of land had no applicability where restrictions were imposed upon the land by a clear and unambiguous conservation easement.
As a final matter, the court noted that Mr. Binning neither pled nor argued the equitable estoppel claim in the district court. As equitable estoppel is not jurisdictional and is not an issue that implicates a fundamental right, the court declined to address it for the first time on appeal. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s finding of summary judgment in favor of The Nature Conservancy.
Four B Properties, LLC v. Nature Conservancy, 458 P.3d 832 (WY 2/21/2020)

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