Brown on Conservation Easements, Public Trust Doctrine, and Takings



Carol Brown, a law professor at the University of North Carolina Law School, is a young scholar of emerging importance in property law and the environment.  One of the themes of this blog is the reconceptualization of property rights and interests to address ecological sustainability and the environment’s carrying capacity.  Professor Brown has written several valuable articles in this area.  I have provided links and abstracts for two of these articles, below:


1) Carol Necole Brown, A Time to Preserve: A Call for Formal Private-Party Rights in Perpetual Conservation Easements. U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 08-07, Available at SSRN: 


For more than a century, conservation easements have been used in the United States to maintain open space or protect the environment. Such easements produce a public good. They increase the amount of protected landscapes by preserving property encumbered by easements from private development or consumption while simultaneously allowing grantors the flexibility to negotiate the retention of development rights tailored to meet the grantors' needs.  My thesis is that private parties should have a common law property interest in conservation easements sufficient to confer standing to seek injunctive relief to enforce conservation easements and to sue for damages when they are violated. More specifically, private parties should have standing to defend perpetual conservation easements. A common law property interest would be analogous to the third-party right of enforcement created by the Uniform Conservation Easement Act ("UCEA") and codified by many states in their state statutes.

It is not my contention that either grantors, holders, or society in general should be bound by a perpetual conservation easement restriction forever. Some degree of flexibility to reflect changing societal needs is prudent. When measuring the appropriate moment in time to modify or terminate a perpetual conservation easement because of changed conditions, the interests of the larger society should be represented in the calculus. Conferring private-party standing would allow these interests to be represented.

My Article provides an efficiency and social justice critique. First, in Part II, I briefly describe the history and rationales underlying the creation and perpetuation of conservation easements. I also discuss the close relationship between preservation and a strong private property regime. Second, in Part III, I discuss challenges to perpetual conservation easements, the doctrine of changed conditions, as well as the importance of private-party enforcement rights to the defense of conservation easements. Next, in Part IV, I consider efficiency and social justice arguments in favor of a restricted application of the doctrine of changed conditions, concluding that private parties should have a recognized, common law property interest in the conservation easement. Then, in Part V, I broaden my analysis of conservation easements to demonstrate that decentralizing ownership interests in property by enforcing the decisions of property owners to burden their property with perpetual conservation easements is consistent with a democratic property system. Finally, in Part VI, I discuss objections to my proposal and alternatives to aggressively defending perpetual conservation easements against challenges pursuant to the doctrine of changed conditions. I conclude that my proposals articulated in Parts IV and V will result in efficient and appropriate levels of conservation while promoting decentralization of private property ownership.


2) Carol Necole Brown,Drinking from a Deep Well: The Public Trust Doctrine and Western Water Law. U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 894088, Available at SSRN:


American water law reflects the diverse geography and population patterns of our country. The arid western states provide fertile ground to consider the burdens of a rapidly growing region on scarce water resources. This Article's thesis is that the public trust doctrine is being underutilized by those western states to address their water scarcity dilemma. I recommend extending the geographical scope of the public trust doctrine to encompass all bodies of water that serve the public welfare, even minimally.

In the Article, I compare an expanded public trust doctrine against a more aggressive application of the prior appropriation doctrine. I discuss why the prior appropriation doctrine and its commodification of water rights is a lesser alternative to rethinking the public trust doctrine. Additionally, I discuss the problem of vested rights and takings challenges that may arise in the wake of an expanded public trust concept. I use the recent United States Supreme Court case Kelo v. Town of New London to illustrate the similarities between the Court's "traditionally broad understanding of public purpose" in the context of takings jurisprudence and the historically dynamic nature of the public trust doctrine. My Article explores the proper role of the public trust doctrine in responding to historic mistakes in this country's approach to water use and conservation in the arid west.