Wetland Council Decision Upheld – Beneficiary Lacks Standing to Bring Claim on Behalf of Trust
In a November 2022 order, the New Hampshire Supreme Court (the “Court”) affirmed a ruling of the New Hampshire Wetlands Council (the “Wetlands Council”), holding that a trust beneficiary lacked the requisite standing to maintain an action challenging the issuance of a shoreland impact permit.
The case in controversy began when petitioner Tanya McIntire (“Petitioner”) appealed a decision of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (“DES”) granting Lake Ave Realty, LLC, (“Respondent’) a shoreland impact permit. The appeal was taken up by the Wetlands Council, which found that Petitioner lacked the standing to challenge the permit grant as Respondent is the beneficiary and not the trustee, of a trust that allegedly owns property abutting Respondent’s. Petitioner then promptly appealed the Wetland Council’s order to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
In assessing Petitioner’s appeal, the Court first summarized its standard of review of Wetland Council decisions as set forth in RSA 541:13 (2021), which provides that Wetland Council findings of fact are to be deemed prima facie lawful and reasonable, and in order for a Council decision to be reversed, the petitioner must show that the decision was “clearly unreasonable or unlawful.” The Court explained that it must uphold decisions of the Wetland Council unless it can be shown by a clear preponderance of the evidence “that such order is unjust or unreasonable.” Id.
In relation to Petitioner’s standing arguments, the Court looked to RSA 21-O:14, I-a(a), III, which provides that in order to appeal a decision to the Wetlands Council, a party must be aggrieved by the underlying decision. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has held that persons aggrieved include any person directly affected by the challenged action or proceeding. Golf Course Investors of NH v. Town of Jaffrey, 161 N.H. 675, 680 (2011). To be considered an “aggrieved party” one must show a direct definite interest in the outcome of the decision. Id. It is not enough that one is simply a member of community. Id. Further, the Court pointed to the Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 107, which states that while a trustee may bring an action against a third party on behalf of the trust and its beneficiaries, generally a trust beneficiary does not have this same ability.
The Court found that Petitioner failed to demonstrate how her direct interests would be harmed by the decision to grant Respondent’s shoreline impact permit beyond that of any other member of the community in general. The Court also held that Petitioner failed to show any authority which would allow a beneficiary to maintain a case on behalf of a trust. As such, the Court found that Petitioner failed to demonstrate reversible error, and the Wetland Council’s decision was affirmed.
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