The AV Land Trust & CT Rowe, by Steve Wood
A recent and continuing series of articles by CT Rowe complains of unfair treatment by the Anderson Valley Land Trust. Although I am a member of the Board of AVLT I have hesitated to respond publicly. I have considered myself a friend of CT and his family for many years. I am not happy to have a public conflict with him. In the recent past I spent many hours in conversation and correspondence with CT, and more hours in researching the history of his family’s Land Trust easement on their property. As more acquaintances approach me to ask what is going on with the angry articles, I see that I should give my side of the story.
In 2002 CT’s mother Briana Burns, her sister Charity, and her sister’s husband Mo Hirsch approached the AVLT about placing their 115-acre property on Peachland Road under the protection of a conservation easement. CT’s sister, Wendy, lived on and farmed the property at that time. As an easement is being formed, the property owner—not the Land Trust--decides what restrictions should be included in the easement. The property owner also selects the “Conservation Values” that the easement is designed to protect. Wendy took a lead role in choosing the restrictions that the easement contained, and in negotiating the terms with AVLT, even though she was not a signatory. After over two years of negotiations and the exchange of many drafts, the parties signed final documents in 2005. According to CT’s court testimony in 2018, he openly opposed his family’s entering into the easement because he considered it too restrictive. His objections were considered, but the family signed the easement nevertheless.
A conservation easement is a contract that gives up certain rights to develop the land in order to further conservation values of various kinds. Tangible values like water quality and soil stability and wildlife habitat; intangibles like the scenic beauty of forest and grassy hills. The rights relinquished may reduce the market value, but it molds future use of the land to the owner’s vision.
Government recognizes the public benefit of the conservation values embodied in such easements and often grants federal tax consideration to the owners. The Land Trust’s job is to monitor and enforce the property owner’s compliance with the restrictions in the easement contract in perpetuity. This assures the community and the government that promises made in signing the easement will be protected. In case the property changes hands by inheritance or sale, the easement goes with the land and is binding on the new owner. Each easement is custom-written to reflect specific choices made by the owner. For this reason, none of the twenty-seven easements held by AVLT are identical. Indeed, some specifically prohibit conduct that others specifically allow.
The easement on CT’s property expresses the vision that members of his family held in 2005 for preserving the character of this particularly beautiful parcel of Anderson Valley highlands. Key provisions detail protection of the forested parts of the property and set limitations on development in the remaining land, which is divided into agricultural and residential zones.
Back to the Ranch
For almost 10 years there was peace on the ranch. When Wendy found her life taking her elsewhere, CT became the heir apparent, and some difficulties emerged. As he had warned his family back in 2005, he viewed many of the restrictions in the easement as unduly limiting. CT had developed his own vision, which involved relying on a “commercial transient hospitality” clause in the easement to develop the property as a camping resort. He envisioned new roads leading to a mixture of campsites and cabins. He viewed the Land Trust’s concern with some of his proposed projects, based on restrictions in the easement, as unwelcome meddling. Briana and the Hirsch’s took his part, contending that AVLT should be willing to renegotiate the easement and “clarify” it, so that CT could move forward with his vision. It’s not so easy.
An Easement is Forever
A conservation easement cannot be amended to loosen its restrictions. The commitment of the Land Trust to an ongoing monitoring of the land under the language of the original Easement is the key to the tax consideration given the owner. To loosen the easement’s provisions would jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the land trust and risk all the tax deductions taken by other owners of property covered by easements held by the Trust. So AVLT did not have the option to weaken the easement, even though all three individuals who executed it in 1995 were having second thoughts about what they signed, and wanted it softened to satisfy CT.
Two or three years of contentious meetings and correspondence followed between the Land Trust, Briana, the Hirsch’s, and CT. During this period Briana passed away and CT inherited her share in the property. The Hirsch’s designated CT as their representative to deal with AVLT. Communications reached a stalemate and after attempts at mediation the Land Trust Board reluctantly decided they couldn’t meet their responsibilities in monitoring compliance without clarification from a judge as to the legal meaning of certain words and phrases in the Easement contract. That was the substance of the lawsuit: asking for clarification of terms by a judge.
The major bone of contention was the extent to which the easement allowed construction of cabins or other commercial “transient hospitality” improvements on the property. The easement said that such improvements and activities were prohibited in the Forest Zone. But there was disagreement on whether the prohibition of more than three dwellings in the Residential and Agricultural Zones also limited construction of number of cabins or campgrounds there.
The judge decided that the easement did not prohibit such development so long as it respected the Conservation Values embodied in the agreement, and so long as it complied with County ordinances. (To be sure, it is not the Land Trust’s job to enforce County Codes; that is for County authorities.) The judge rendered her verdict in 2018. The members of the Land Trust accepted her decision. I hoped that we all could move forward in harmony again. It was not to be.
Many issues keep returning. Can a new road be constructed into the Forest Zone without a forestry-related purpose? Can a creek crossing at a particularly erosive spot be allowed without engaging professional design assistance? Can marijuana be grown in commercial quantities on the property without the Land Trust’s objection? Does the Land Trust have any legitimate concern with the quality of construction of an earthen dam on a watercourse that leads to a blue line stream that empties into Tony Creek, given that one of the objectives clearly documented in the easement was to protect Tony Creek from additional erosion and silting?
The Story Continues
And now we find a series of articles published in this paper, and which are promised to continue for some time. I doubt that this public forum is the best place for arguing the fine points of what is a lengthy legal document. The gist is that CT feels he has been treated unfairly or in bad faith. CT contends that some easement holders are given preferential leniency with their easement terms, while others are held to strict compliance. This is not true. Because each easement is custom-negotiated and unique, AVLT may necessarily require different conduct on different properties. Being even-handed with easement holders is extremely important, especially when some AVLT board members hold easements themselves. Barbara Goodell sits on the board, and her property is covered by a Conservation Easement.
CT contends that terms of the Easement held by Barbara Goodell and her husband are being given special lenient treatment while he is being held to an unreasonably high standard of interpretation. He cites her easement terms that “Any residential use or the maintenance, construction, reconstruction or placement of any residential structures of any kind additional to the following is prohibited: two residences (and outbuildings) already existing within the Original Homestead Zone, as identified in the Report on APN 029-150-47; one new family care unit for restricted to persons fifty-five (55) or older.”
Goodells’ original family compound has a main house and a cluster of outbuildings including a separate apartment which was occupied by the their sons at the time of signing of the easement. (There is a second home on the property whose status is not in dispute.) When their sons moved to independent homes elsewhere, various tenants succeed them. CT apparently believes that the separate apartment which was already in existence when the easement was signed is the “new family care unit for persons over 55” and has been carelessly rented to younger persons. The option to build an additional dwelling for persons over 55 has never been exercised.
CT complains that his concerns are ignored and AVLT board members refuse to speak with him.
I think it is fair to mention that I took responsibility for three months to be the primary AVLT board contact with CT. I met with him on four occasions on his property and in my office, and we spent long hours in conversation. I hoped to repair the damage that came from years of unproductive contention and legal wrangling. I thought I had a good chance to bridge the gap of distrust. I had been friends with Briana for many years. CT had lived in my home for several months as an informal foster child when he was very young. I came to the task with a reservoir of good will that came from our history. I was willing to listen and question my own assumptions.
I found myself very disappointed and frustrated. I became worn out by ever present distrust. CT felt that he was being cheated out of rights that came with his land, and that I was party to the injustice. It was painful to conclude after much effort that he and I could not move past this resentment.
This young man has inherited a magnificent piece of land with enormous potential. I hope he can come to see that the Land Trust easement that comes with his inheritance is an asset that will guide his use and protection of the property in the spirit of his family’s intentions. The serial attack on the Land Trust may undermine community faith in the organization, which would be a pity. The Anderson Valley Land Trust is an important force in preserving the unique rural quality of our Valley. From my five years on the Trust I believe the Directors are honest people doing a good job.
AVLT Vice President
Back At Ya, Steve, by C.T. Rowe
I do appreciate you taking the time to clearly and fully lay out your opinions on this Steve. And I’m glad you took “3 months” to try and be the one on the board to work with me. I was disappointed that we stopped talking after only an hour or two every month, and that you didn’t have the time or desire to work with me more.
But once again Steve, we agree on many aspects of the situation. Your first 3 headings, “AVLT and CT”, “Some History”, and “Easements”, are all somewhat accurate.
So let’s look at what you got really wrong, starting with “Back to the Ranch”, where you say I “had developed my own vision”, which involved “transient hospitality”. This is pure fantasy, which you have gotten straight from AVLT president Patrick Miller, I’m assuming. Patrick fabricated this in his own head. Virtually no “transient hospitality” has ever occurred on the property, and I have no plans to engage in anything like it. Please show me any facts that support this fantasy as being a real thing. Why this narrative exists in the mindset of the AVLT is mystifying to me. I think maybe this fabrication caused a lawsuit?
While it’s true that back in 2005, I did tell my family it sounded restrictive to put an easement on the property, I knew nothing of easements in 2005. You are incorrect to say I feel the AVLT’s responsibilities are “unwelcome meddling”. Why you are trying to paint me as anything but an AVLT supporter, I’m not sure. (Well, maybe because if I was against the AVLT you could say “oh CT just hates us”. But I don’t. I support land conservation and land trusts. I think that’s why you want to sell this untruth.) You know I have volunteered my time as a board member in good faith, and I truly desire to see the AVLT act balanced and fair. It’s true, I do want to see strong ethics and morals in place at the AVLT, as currently I believe they are lacking. I fully supported my family’s’ choices and am grateful to have an easement protecting my family’s redwoods, land, houses, cabins and business opportunities. I was wrong about easements being restrictive. And it’s dishonest of you to use my honest description of something I said 15 years ago before I knew about easements. I now know, as you do Steve, that some easements like Barbara’s and Steve Snyder’s can be very restrictive, while easements like mine can allow all sorts of commercial activities. I am forever thankful to my family for protecting the continued commercial uses on my property with an easement. That’s why the judge upheld all the conditions of the easement in her ruling. The problem is the AVLT board imposing imagined restrictions that don’t exist in my easement. Like trying to say a motorhome is prohibited on my property when Steve Snyder’s much more restrictive easement somehow allows a motorhome? I find it noticeable that you don’t mention that little tidbit in your “explanation” of why you sued me and not Steve or Barbara.
An Easement is Forever
You state “A conservation easement cannot be amended to loosen its restrictions”. Steve, you and every board member know that wording like this is not a part of any AVLT easement. In fact, every easement says that “Grantor and Grantee may jointly amend this Easement”. And while you are partially stating the truth, that you can’t amend it so prominently that it would start to affect the IRS tax write off that was received with the easement, (of which my family received almost none, possibly negating this issue entirely) you are incorrect that an easement can’t be changed in many ways. And then you truly lie that my family tried to “soften” our easement to satisfy me. Maybe you’re not lying, but you need to do as I have done in my 17 part series and preface the statement with “I believe” so it’s obvious to the reader that you are being editorial and pontificating your personal opinion and not supportable fact. We tried to make our easement MORE restrictive and precise, by including limits to structures and development that were never included in our original easement. And it was in no way for me. But you and the entire board refused to have that conversation or communicate at all.
And so, as you put it, “Communication reached a stalemate”. That’s a nice way of trying to phrase it Steve! I guess that makes you sound better than saying all the AVLT board members refused to talk with members of my family and then filed a surprise lawsuit. It’s very hurtful when you say “after attempts at mediation”. The easement actually requires mediation before a lawsuit. Why are you being dishonest about this? My family requested mediation after the lawsuit. There was no mediation before the lawsuit. We didn’t know we were about to be sued. How would we know to request mediation before a lawsuit we didn’t know was coming? The AVLT was mandated by the contract to request such mediation before suing us, and didn’t, because Patrick had decided he wanted the personal retribution of a surprise attack. (I’m pontificating) And you didn’t come to mediation. Even after my family requested you and Barbara come to mediation. You were a no-show along with Barbara. I even asked Barbara in person to attend. She said she had not been told by the AVLT or Patrick that she had been requested. And then you sent Patrick Miller. Who seems to have some anger management issues and openly stated that he had no desire to work out a compromise and wanted to go straight to court. And then Patrick “offered” that he would drop the lawsuit if we tore down a cabin that had been on the property for decades before the easement, and is mentioned and protected by the easement! Madness!
I think we agree again Steve! The judge said my family was right all along and the AVLT was denied every request they made in the lawsuit. Hmm. Also, glad to see you mention that the AVLT doesn’t enforce county code! I agree! But then that makes me think of the lawsuit where it says; “Failure to comply with any such codes or regulations shall constitute a breach of the Agreement.” (Read it yourself at peachlandranch.home.blog) So, I want to believe you Steve, but it’s weird to hear you say that, now, when you sued me trying to add code breaches as violations of my easement. Hmm. Maybe losing this lawsuit changed your mind?
Then you ask a bunch of random questions that are obviously all irrelevant. As the Vice President of the AVLT you shouldn’t be listing your personal confusions on the front page of the paper. Looks bad from my perspective. When I’m on the board of the AVLT I will definitely not be doing that. Why don’t you list actual policies and reasons why certain things are or aren’t allowed by the AVLT? Randomly listing hypotheticals that stump you does not make the AVLT look more competent, but less.
The Story Continues
I think you’ve made my argument about Barbara pretty well! Her easement states, “Any residential use” “of any kind additional to the following is prohibited”. It doesn’t matter whether it was her kids before the easement, or her tenants now, her easement clearly restricts her to three THINGS being used as residences. One of those, clearly restricted to 55 and older. She can’t go building a fourth structure and call that her 55 and older house! Or maybe your argument is that Barbara’s not violating the age requirement, but just violating the limit on two, regular, non-age restricted residences? OK. Her easement clearly prohibits that also. It doesn’t matter that Barbara had the “apartment”, as you call it, before or after her easement. Her easement says USE. As in, what happens with any structures and what they are used for, not what they are, or when they were built. What matters is what her easement says. And her easement says that only three of anything can be USED as such. Not an “option to build” as you try to change the wording to, but “use restricted to the following;”. Barbara is clearly breaking that restriction. A judge would quickly agree and force the repayment of all Barbara’s ill-gotten gains. Check with your legal counsel. They will tell you the AVLT is blatantly legally liable. The sliding scale of justice that you are using to justify Barbara’s violations make it hard to understand how I got a lawsuit for “transient hospitality” (and a golf cart and Facebook page) that didn’t even exist. And then of course there’s the time the board let Barbara cut down a redwood tree that was protected/restricted by her easement. And then Steve Snyder’s RV. It goes on and on.
I don’t distrust you Steve. Sorry you feel that way. I trust you. I would sit down with you tomorrow and try for a fresh start. The problem is that you then walk away, or won’t sit down at all in the first place. And I hold no resentment for you. You’ve just been fed too many lies for 5 years and it will take a while to show you the facts. Facts are hard. They take time and effort and a lot of reading and explanation. Lies are easy and quick. I wish you wanted to spend the time that is necessary. Things like this take time. Being the Vice President of a non-profit takes time. Dealing with the aftermath of a lawsuit takes time. I’m sorry the AVLT is such a burden for you and the other board members. But that’s what a non-profit of volunteers is supposed to be for. Taking the time to make it right. Even if it’s hard. Even if it takes time.
I will continue to volunteer my time to the AVLT. I will continue to be willing to try to work with you and the AVLT. I find it troubling that Steve Snyder and you have time to sit down and write for the paper while not having time to sit and talk with me. That just seems insincere. I’ve sliced out the time to write a 17 part series. I don’t want to spend my time doing that. I’d rather spend my time volunteering for the AVLT and other non-profits and helping Anderson Valley be a cooperative community that avoids lawsuits when possible. We all have a choice of what we do with our time Steve. I wish you and I would put our time into direct communication instead of openly airing our opposing views in the paper.
In closing, I’m not wild about being referred to as “this young man”. Do I detect a condescending tone? Am I just overly sensitive? How about if I don’t refer to the AVLT board members as too old and senile to read and comprehend Barbara’s easement. Hey, if you meant it as a compliment, thanks, although I think 46 is well into middle age and I’ve got no shortage of gray hairs to prove it. But I guess maybe I’m just being prickly. Quarter million dollar harassment lawsuits will do that to ya.