Steven Rattee wants to construct a house and a driveway on his property. 103 acres of Mr. Rattee’s 185 acres is subject to an easement called an agricultural preservation restriction (APR). The purpose of the easement is “preserving the limited land suitable for agricultural production.” Mr. Rattee’s property has productive agricultural soil. The easement was granted to the state of New Hampshire by the previous landowner and is managed by the Agricultural Land Preservation Committee (ALPC). Now, in addition to seeking a building permit, Mr. Rattee is required to get permission from ALPC before constructing certain types of structures. However, ALPC did not adopt rules to establish how to apply for permission to construct on land with an APR. Also, the ALPC has not previously enforced restrictions of APRs.
When Mr. Rattee first attempted to build a new residence, he sought a building permit but neglected to seek the approval of ALPC. When the superior court of New Hampshire required Rattee to obtain permission from ALPC, Rattee argued that the APR contained ambiguous language. The APR stated in part a prohibition on construction, “except those to be used for agricultural purposes or for dwelling to be used for family living by the landowner… subject to the prior approval of the Grantee.”
The first issue on appeal is whether the APLC, as the grantee, has the authority to require that the landowner seek permission before construction. Rattee argues that this approval is not required because the state cannot regulate the location of the landowner’s house. Additionally, the Court reviews the decision by the ALPC to deny the permission. Part of Rattee’s argument is that the APR references a state statute which does not require permission from the grantee. However, the language of this APR contains a provision that gives the right of prior approval to the state. The court decided that the state may purchase more rights than those listed in the statutory definition of an APR and therefore enforces the requirement that Mr. Rattee seek permission before constructing a new house. The Court’s rationale rested in looking at the enabling statute’s purpose of “preserving the limited land suitable for agricultural production. In addition, despite the language that allowed the grantor to retain the right to build a residence on his property, the explicit intent of the statute conditions this right on the grantee’s permission.
The court’s decision, in effect, broadens the rights conveyed to the grantee. This double-edged sword, while enabling the grantee to have more authority in dictating the use of the land, may also hinder its ability to obtain more easements. Landowners who are aware of the court’s broad interpretation of the statute’s intent may be hesitant that the court will continue to expand the grantee’s authority that rests within the limited property rights it received. Furthermore, the expansive authority granted in the conveyance also burdens the grantee with more responsibility because the grantee’s responsibility to the constituents of the state is also broadened. Land trusts and other small organizations that act as grantees must be aware of their duty to the public to steward this land for. It is crucial that these organizations stay afloat in order to maintain the property rights, which the landowner has already conveyed in return for tax benefits or money. Largely, this duty to the public requires the grantee to hold the landowner accountable to the limitations of his property rights.
This case, while humanizing the effects of the perpetual nature of APRs, is an important indicator of the court’s enforcement of these property rights. While the landowner may still have the title of the land in fee simple, he has sacrificed certain property rights, and is required to communicate to the grantee with regards to any decisions about significant changes to the land.