We've ranted many times about laws that force homeowners to have lawns, and equally ridiculous laws requiring them to water their lawns – all summer, even in the desert. (We couldn't make this stuff up.) Homeowner associations are notorious for having outdated but staunchly defended landscaping rules, and when residents run afoul of them the response always seems to be: they knew what they were getting into when they bought their house, so tough titties!
Now we come to a law that's the complete opposite, yet leads to very similar homeowners frustrations and the questionable claim that home buyers knew what they were getting into.
According to this story, the Sandler family has lived in a community in my county for five years, during which time they've used their back yard like most people do – growing a small flower bed, mowing their lawn, and in general enjoying "their little patch of suburbia."
That is, until they got a letter from the county informing them that it was illegal for them to mow the grass in their back yard. Also illegal? That raised garden bed, their portable basketball hoop, a canoe and about 100 square feet of their asphalt driveway.
According to the letter and the plat you see here, "almost all of their back yard is part of a forest conservation plan agreed to by the property's previous owner. An ironclad addendum to their deed, attached for perpetuity, forbade them to mow, dig, erect fences or pull weeds. The land was legally required to revert to its wild state."
Should they have known?
The Sandlers say they were never told that the lot carried such strict protections, though their contract of sale did say their property included "land dedicated to a conservation easement as part of a Forest Conservation Plan," and Michael Sandler checked that paragraph to indicate he'd read it.
But the term "conservation easement" wasn't defined, and the Sandlers now say "Listen, we wouldn't have bought the place if we knew we couldn't use the back yard." And I believe them. Of course the builder says that "Absolutely, they knew," and that all the plans showed the easement", although "he could recall no other specific conversations about the protected area."
So despite the importance of conservation easements to protect our watershed, I'm feeling pretty sympathetic toward the unfortunate homeowner. Anybody else?
The duty to inform
The news story points out that "The county now requires conservation areas to be posted with signs that prospective buyers would see as they house-shop" but again, are they told what that means? Shouldn't the sign and the contract both list all the banned uses of their back yard? The county seems to think their new Web site that shows easements for every address in the county helps, but I'm not sure how – unless you know how restrictive these easements are and go out of your way to find and avoid them.
Deep within the county's website is a page about easements that leads to (finally) a definition of the kind of easement (Category 1) that the Sandlers have on their property: that it prohibits clearing of any tree, bush, or vegetation; prohibits construction, paving or grading of the ground; prohibits the dumping of unsightly materials (trash, ash, non-biodegradable materials, etc).
What would YOU assume?
If I were the potential buyer of a property that contained a "conservation easement", I'd assume that I couldn't do terrible things there, like dump stuff, apply bags of "Weed and Seed, or remove healthy trees. And I wouldn't be too surprised to learn that I couldn't construct out-buildings or pour a concrete patio. But to later be fined for mowing the lawn and having a raised bed? Surprise!