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Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts, Inc. v. Cedar Hill Retreat Center, Inc.

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

November 15, 2017


          Caption Date: November 10, 2017


          Janet L. Sanders, Justice

         This is an action seeking to enforce a Conservation Restriction imposed on real property located in Duxbury, Massachusetts (the Property). Plaintiffs are the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts, Inc. (Wildlands Trust) and the John and Cynthia Reed Foundation (the Foundation). Plaintiffs allege that the current owner of the Property, the defendant Cedar Hill Retreat Center, Inc. (Cedar Hill), is engaging in commercial activities in violation of the Conservation Restriction. Also named as a defendant is the Ballou Channing District Unitarian Universalist Association, Inc. (Ballou Channing), the original owner of the Property and the Grantor of the Conservation Restriction. Plaintiffs allege that the Ballou Channing induced the Foundation into making a $3 million gift in return for Ballou Channing’s promise to create the Conservation Restriction and to use the Foundation’s donation to preserve the Premises in conformity with that restriction (the " Gift Agreement").

         This lawsuit was instituted on May 4, 2016. In their original Complaint, plaintiffs asserted the following counts against both defendants: breach of the Gift Agreement (Count I); breach of the Conservation Restriction (Count II); promissory estoppel (Count III); unjust enrichment (Count IV); and violation of Chapter 93A (Count V). The defendants filed motions to dismiss. On December 30, 2016, this Court allowed those motions in part. See Memorandum of Decision and Order dated December 30, 2016 (the 2016 Decision) [34 Mass.L.Rptr. 52]. As to Ballou Channing, this Court dismissed Count II because it no longer owned the Property that was subject to the Conservation Restriction. As to Cedar Hill, this Court dismissed Counts I, III and IV- those counts based on the Gift Agreement- because Cedar Hill was not a party to the Gift Agreement. Count V alleging a violation of Chapter 93A was dismissed as to both defendants.

         Six months later, plaintiffs amended their complaint to assert new claims against both defendants and to add back some claims that this Court had previously dismissed. Specifically, the Amended Complaint contains a new claim against both defendants based on the same allegations that were the basis of Counts I, III and IV of the original Complaint, but with a wrinkle: this new claim asserts a breach of what is described as a " Letter Agreement" between the defendants Ballou Channing and Cedar Hill. Plaintiffs say that they only learned of this Letter Agreement as a result of discovery in the case but now claim they are third-party beneficiaries entitled to enforce it. As a consequence of this new count for breach of contract (the Letter Agreement), the Amended Complaint added Cedar Hill back to the previously dismissed claims against it of unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel. The Amended Complaint also added Ballou Channing back as a defendant on the claim alleging a breach of the Conservation Restriction, even though this Court in its 2016 Decision had dismissed Ballou Channing as a defendant on that claim. Finally, the Amended Complaint accuses Ballou Channing of intentional misrepresentation, an entirely new claim. See Count VI of Amended Complaint.

         Defendants now bring a second set of motions to dismiss, targeting these new counts and claims, but also asking this Court to dismiss those counts that I had previously concluded would remain in this case. This Court admits to some frustration in dealing with this latest round of motions which, like the earlier ones, are brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Mass.R.Civ.P. On one hand, plaintiffs seem intent on circumventing this Court’s earlier decision with new (and ultimately unsupported) theories which needlessly complicate what would seem to be a fairly straightforward case. On the other hand, in moving to dismiss all counts (including those that this Court already declined to dismiss earlier), the defendants make essentially the same arguments they made in connection with their first set of motions. To the extent that they rely on materials beyond the four corners of the Complaint, this Court does not understand why it is important (much less appropriate) to litigate these issues under the standard applicable to Rule 12(b)(6) motions.

         Ultimately, this Court concludes that the new claims must be dismissed and the old claims must remain- at least until discovery is complete. The Motions are therefore Allowed in part and Denied in part. Thus, after much expenditure of time and resources, this case is back to where it stood in December 2016: the case survives but only as to those claims that remained in the case after this Court’s 2016 Decision.


         Because many of the allegations made in the Amended Complaint are the same as those alleged in the original one and are fairly summarized in the 2016 Decision, this Court will not rehash all of them here, except to summarize those allegations (including any new ones) that are necessary to place the issues in context.

         The Reeds are abutters to the Property, which consists of about twelve acres of land. When Ballou Channing acquired the Property, it had certain restrictions on its use. In 2007 when the Reeds learned that these restrictions were soon to expire, they entered into discussions with Ballou Channing about extending and strengthening the restrictions. Ballou Channing represented that it would take about $150, 000 a year to preserve and maintain the Property without the need to engage in commercial revenue-generating activity. The Reeds, through the Foundation, agreed to make a $3 million gift to Ballou Channing to cover these expenses. On October 17, 2008, a Conservation Restriction was recorded with the Plymouth Registry of Deeds that named Ballou Channing as Grantor and plaintiff Wildlands Trust as Grantee.

         The following year, Ballou Channing created Cedar Hill, a 501(c)(3) organization, to own and operate the Property. Ballou Channing also filed a Petition with the Supreme Judicial Court seeking approval of a transfer of the Property to Cedar Hill, as required by G.L.c. 214, § 1. Exhibit C to Amended Complaint.[1] The Petition alluded to the $3 million gift from the Foundation and stated that it was to compensate Ballou Channing " for (i) its loss of development rights; (ii) the expense associated with creating the Conservation Restrictions and operating and maintaining the Property in accordance with such restrictions over the years; (iii) the beneficial impact the Conservation Restrictions have upon the surrounding community; and (iv) the fact that the Conservation Restrictions will encumber the Property in perpetuity." ¶ 15 of Exhibit C to Amended Complaint. The Petition added, however, that neither Ballou Channing nor the Foundation had restricted Ballou Channing’s use of the $3 million gift " nor envisioned the fund would be used exclusively for the management of the Property." Id. The Petition further stated that Ballou Channing and Cedar Hill had entered into a Letter Agreement (attached to the Petition) to ensure that Cedar Hill continued to use the Property in accordance with the terms of the Conservation Restriction. To accomplish those ends, Cedar Hill would receive $1.4 million from Ballou Channing. That Petition was subsequently approved and the Property was transferred to Cedar Hill by Quitclaim Deed in October 2009. See Exhibit D to Amended Complaint.

         The Letter Agreement referenced in the Petition forms the basis of one of the new claims at issue and is attached to the Amended Complaint as Exhibit A. The parties to it are Ballou Channing and Cedar Hill. The Letter Agreement contains certain " Recitals" which acknowledge, among other things, the Conservation Restriction with Wildlands Trust. The Letter Agreement states that $1.4 million is being transferred to Cedar Hill to be used " for the purpose of maintaining, operating and improving the Property in accordance with the Conservation Restriction and this Agreement." It gives member congregations of Ballou Channing permission to use the Property so long as they comply with the Conservation Restriction. Under a section entitled " Dispute Resolution, " the Letter Agreement sets forth a procedure that Ballou Channing must follow in the event that it " becomes aware of or reasonably suspects" that Cedar Hill is not operating the Property in compliance with the Conservation Restriction. If mediation fails, the parties to the Letter Agreement may bring their dispute to Land Court.

         The Amended Complaint alleges that since this transfer, Cedar Hill has engaged in commercial revenue-generating activities on the Property which are in violation of the Conservation Restriction. It alleges that Cedar Hill has not used the funds to preserve the Property but that it has rather used some portion of them to promote this commercial activity. Ballou Channing is aware of Cedar Hill’s violations and has refused to take steps to end them. Finally, the Amended Complaint accuses Ballou Channing of intentional ...

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