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Land conservancy, horse farm settle lawsuit over riding ring

A graded riding ring, shown in a 2014 file photo with a riding student, was the subject of a lawsuit that the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and the Hidden Valley Farm  settled last week. A graded riding ring, shown in a 2014 file photo with a riding student, was the subject of a lawsuit that the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and the Hidden Valley Farm settled last week.

The owner of a horse farm and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy have settled a two-year legal fight over what the conservancy said were violations of an agreement to preserve the property.

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Under a consent judgment signed by Superior Court Judge William H. Coward, Hidden Valley Farm agreed to restore an area it graded for a horse ring and pay the land conservancy $37,500 in legal costs.
The conservancy sued the landowner in October 2013 after he put in two gravel roads, cut into a ridge and graded a pasture for a riding ring. The 60-acre farm on Greenville Highway just south of the Flat Rock village limit is owned by a trust formed by a California businessman, Hugh R. Cassar, and his wife, Lynn Keets Cassar.
Cassar, a wealthy philanthropist who owns a tobacco products business in southern California, bought the property for $3 million in 2010 from Peter M. Hess. Hess had agreed seven years earlier to a conservation easement preserving 39 acres of the land. Conservation easements, which under IRS law provide tax benefits to the landowner, stay in effect when a property changes hands.
The conservancy said in the lawsuit that its officials discovered the violations of the conservation agreement during an annual monitoring visit in July 2013. The grading of the bank, leveling of the pasture and cutting of roads “were violations of the terms of the easement,” the conservancy said.
The lawsuit was the subject of a trial that started in July, consuming four days, and was scheduled to resume last Monday. The parties instead started negotiations and reached an agreement by Thursday. The order was filed on Friday.
“We’re very pleased about it,” said Kieran Roe, executive director of the Hendersonville-based conservancy, which has protected 27,000 acres from development in Henderson and Transylvania counties. “They are agreeing to restore the property to a grassy pasture, to not proceed with the riding ring that they were originally using and to paying an amount of money to go toward our legal fees. It’s not the entire amount of the legal costs but it will certainly help with some of that.”
The land conservancy was represented by Sharon Alexander and Anderson Ellis, of Prince Youngblood and Massagee. Craig Justus, of the Van Winkle law firm, represented Cassar.
“I think it’s a fair compromise and everyone is glad to have it behind us,” Justus said. “I think the things that are mentioned in there are reasonable and very doable.” He said he did not know how much the work would cost.
In four days in court, Alexander had filed 88 exhibits and Justus 27, and the plaintiff’s attorney had finished questioning eight of 10 witnesses she planned to call.
“I think it took longer than anybody expected,” Justus said. As for the $37,500 settlement, “our client certainly has agreed to pay it,” Justus said. “There are certain benefits and things we got out of it that make it worth it.” The agreement allows for the restored pasture “to be used for training and exercising and riding horses.”
Justus said he did not know whether the farm’s operators plan to resume riding lessons, which it was offering before the conservancy won a court order blocking further work on the riding ring.
“From the conservancy’s perspective, we were very pleased with how the trial was proceeding and observed that the judge seemed to accept the idea that a violation had occurred,” Roe said. “So the defendants began to discuss with us possible avenues for settling short of going to a decision. My sense was where you can have certainty there’s a benefit in that. It didn’t seem to make sense to us to spend money and time and resources in trial when the defendants were willing to give us really most of what we were seeking. The easement is still there, still in effect.”
A member of the Land Trust Alliance, CMLC had the support of the Terrafirma Risk Retention Group, a risk pool that “provided substantial funding for the costs” of the litigation, Roe said.
“What I was saying to some others recently about this is that it says the conservancy takes seriously the promises we make to the landowner and to the public when we accept a conservation easement and that promise is we will work forever to uphold the terms of the easement and safeguard the benefit to the public,” Roe said. “In most cases we work very well with landowners … When there is a violation we feel it’s really our obligation to do what we can to see that the terms are upheld.”
The consent order requires the landowner to loosen the compaction of the leveled riding ring area, follow “best practices” in the use of top soil and planting, restore the graded riding ring to grass, use erosion control measures and remove the gravel roads and plant ground cover along the roadbed. It gives the conservancy the right to monitor the restoration work. The order allows the farm to keep the flat graded area and use it as a “grass covered riding ring.”