MADISON — The Madison Land Conservation Trust won a Superior Court lawsuit against a neighbor of one of its “open space” parcels along the Hammonasset River, which is noted as an important habitat for trout and has a “high scenic value” as well.
Justice Robin Lynn Wilson ruled that after having cut seven trees and brush in the floodplain of the Hammonasset River, Creamery Lane resident Antonio Suppa must pay the Land Trust $50,609 in restoration costs and attorneys’ fees and costs.
“It’s fairly important,” explained Keith Ainsworth, Madison resident, Land Trust member and New Haven environmental attorney who handled the case.
“The Land Trust, in its history, has gone to court only a few times and in this instance, it’s the first time that they actually went to court to try a case against someone who encroached on their property,” he said. “It was probably the most serious encroachment in recent history in terms of the sensitivity of the land involved.”
The damage violated the Wetlands Act, the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act and the Encroachment Statute, he explained.
In late spring 2016, Madison Wetlands Enforcement Officer Robert Kuchta, investigating significant tree clearing and brush removal along the Hammonasset River, where it snakes past Creamery Lane, determined that Suppa engaged in clear-cutting the southern portion of his lot and beyond it down to the edge of the Hammonasset River — crossing 80 to 100-feet onto land owned by the Trust.
“The property is actually a wetland flood plain in the Hammonasset River, on a big bend in the Hammonasset River, that’s very shaded and it’s a trout management area,” said Aisworth. “So it’s got a high habitat value and a lot of scenic value, also.”
In Connecticut, open space is protected by the Encroachment Statute, “one of the most powerful environmental laws anywhere,” according to Ainsworth. It provides that a person who encroaches on or cuts vegetation on open-space lands can be sued to restore the land to its pre-cut condition, plus management costs to ensure that the restoration takes hold.
The court held that Suppa must pay for the cost of 12 trees and various native shrubs, but did not multiply the damages, finding that he had only displayed bad judgment in not looking at his deed, his property survey or the subdivision maps before clearing.
Ainsworth explained that in addition to Suppa’s violation, two other neighbors encroached on the Land Trust property, but to a much less extent.
“The Land Trust property adjacent to Mr. Suppa’s property was much larger and so his encroachment was 100 – 110 feet into land trust property, as opposed to six, eight or 10 feet with the others,” he explained.
In addition, Ainsworth said, the Land Trust was able to negotiate, early on, with Suppa’s neighbors to remedy their particular situation.
Currently, near Suppa’s property, there is some regrowth of about a foot and a half of shrub layer including brambles, shrubs and herbaceous plants, in addition to silky Dogwood trees along the embankment.
“Obviously, the land will heal to some degree, but given that there were really large diameter trees that were taken out – these trees had a diameter of 22 to 28 to 32-inches, those were 90, 110-year-old trees – and it takes a long time to produce the canopy that they do,” said Ainsworth. “Without planting new trees, there’ll just be a low scrub layer there for decades.”
This case, according to Land Trust President Ben Dielbold, emphasizes how committed the organization is to preserving open space.
“We regret the necessity of going to court,” he said. “It’s not something we want to do or enjoy doing, we actively work to resolve disputes with our neighbors, but we are obligated to protect our open spaces and we will do what we have to do.”