Inside the Wild Feud Between Jonathan Knight and the Trustees of Reservations
New Kids on the Block superstar Jonathan Knight had it all: a rewarding career, a loving family, a postcard-worthy farm on protected North Shore land, and a dream home underway. Then lawyers from the most powerful conservation organization in the state came knocking.
One day last October in Essex, a pair of khaki-clad visitors clomped through the lush grass next to a large vegetable garden laid in neat, green rows and past a trio of horses in the pasture to their destination: the skeleton of a half-finished barn, wrapped in fraying Typar building paper. They peered inside an open doorframe to where a human-size, baby-blue travel wardrobe with the letters “NKOTB” spray painted on its side stood at the foot of a staircase.
This wasn’t some deranged duo trespassing on a picture-perfect North Shore farm to stalk its owner, New Kids on the Block singer Jonathan Knight. They worked for the Trustees of Reservations—one of the most esteemed conservation organizations in the state. This was an official site visit—and the object of their attention inside the partially constructed structure was not that gem of an NKOTB relic but rather the staircase next to it.
This farm, which Knight currently owns, has been governed by a conservation restriction under the Trustees protection since 1976, which stipulates what its owners can and can’t do to the property. The only structures allowed to be built on Knight’s land are required to support farming. On paper, Knight’s so-called barn was supposed to serve as a storehouse for hay. But when inspectors arrived, the central staircase was no hayloft ladder, and proved to them that the structure was clearly intended to be a home—not a haybarn. For the Trustees, after many transgressions on the landowner’s part, this was the last straw.
The following month, Knight, who, when home on the farm, trades his V-necks and designer sneakers for work boots and Carhartt, was standing in the kitchen of his home—across the road from the structure in question—when his phone buzzed, cutting through the bleating of his goats out back. It was a call from his lawyer. The Trustees were suing him, asking a judge to force Knight to turn his future home into a barn or else bulldoze it completely and make the land look as if the building had never existed. Knight was seething. “I just hope people see the ludicrousness of this,” Knight told me, alluding to the archaic restrictions. “I hate to use the word ‘celebrity,’ but I always felt like I could be an ally for this organization.”
It was never supposed to be this way. As a boy-band heartthrob (who still goes on tour), Knight has gone on to become the star of the hit HGTV show Farmhouse Fixer, during which he travels throughout New England to remodel old farmhouses for lucky—and oftentimes star-struck—homeowners. He had imagined his own farmhouse-to-be as his ultimate construction project, one not for his clients or exclusively for the cameras but for himself and his husband. It was to be the centerpiece of the dreamlike farm where the restless yet aging New Kid would finally settle down, raise a family, and tend to his crops.
Instead, the creaky, rotting eyesore of a barn with sparrows flitting in and out has thrust Knight—better known for his bouncy love songs than bitter feuds—into the legal battle of his life. It has also become one of the most acrimonious—and certainly most public—spats with a landowner that the Trustees organization has fought in its 131-year history. On Twitter, Knight has called out the Trustees’ CEO by name, tarred the organization as “corrupt,” and promised that “their lies will be exposed.” On the local news, Knight accused the Trustees of being a big nonprofit going after small homeowners. All the while, he has elicited supportive messages from adoring fans who insist he is being treated unfairly, perhaps singled out for poor treatment because he is a celebrity. (In a statement, the Trustees say they treat every landowner under its watch—all 322 of them, many also celebrities—equally.) “They led me down this path. They paint me to be [someone] who thinks he can just make up his own rules as he goes, and that’s just totally not true,” he says. “If they want to play dirty, I can play dirty, too.”
“I love a good old farmhouse!” an enthusiastic Knight exclaims to the camera in the intro to Farmhouse Fixer, which leans into the contrast between Knight’s glitzy stadium tours as a singer and his time striding through muddy fields and sizing up sagging floorboards. “To me, being on a farm is just a way of life. It’s the real deal.”
It’s not a put-on. After NKOTB’s heyday, Knight led a recluse’s life on a different farm in Essex, took up a second career flipping historic homes in the Boston area, and schooled himself on the affiliated arts of scooping goat poop and reinforcing fieldstone. In 2015, Knight purchased the farm where he now lives from his mother, and she moved to a farmhouse on another property that he bought across the road. For years, he planted bushes by hand and fed livestock on cool, dewy mornings. When NKOTB went on nostalgia-fueled stadium tours, Knight stopped by between concerts to mow the lawn. His sprawling property is his pride and joy and has been a recurring character on his TV show, serving as evidence of his farm-fixing credentials.
When it came time to fix his own farmhouse and finally settle down and raise a family, Knight’s initial plan was simple: He would lift the property’s original farmhouse off its foundation and move it a stone’s throw away to better protect it from the road and gain a better view of his crops. But not so fast. The Trustees’ rules allowed owners to renovate or even replace their homes but stipulated that they had to stay “in substantially their respective, present locations.” They turned Knight down.
Knight was baffled by how his plan to move his house—on nearly 7 acres of land—roughly 100 feet mattered to the organization. More to the point, Knight says, what precisely do the restrictions really mean when they say “substantially?” And who says it means exactly the same place or fewer than 100 feet away? Still, he was heartened to learn from the Trustees that there was a way out. As he understood it, he could secure a simple amendment to his conservation restriction and then move the farmhouse where he liked. He began negotiations with the Trustees, but they started to drag, slowed by a thicket of obscure regulations and pending sign-off from state and local officials. Knight grew impatient. In the fall of 2016, eager to get to work before the winter frost, he went ahead and dug a hole for his new foundation in anticipation of what he thought would be an imminent amendment approval.
The following summer, while he and the Trustees had yet to agree to the terms of an amendment (one that Knight claims he didn’t want or need), Trustees officials couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in the ground, which they believed to be in violation of the conservation restriction. Though he disagreed, Knight hatched a new plan: Instead of waiting for permission to build a house, at least for the short term, he would obtain paperwork to build a brand-new barn. After all, he reasoned, the restrictions explicitly allowed the building of farming structures. Soon, the project was approved, and Knight figured that once he received the necessary amendment, he’d simply build the house he desired. (He claims he told the Trustees about his plan.) He poured the foundation.
For another two years, Knight waited for permission to build his home. He sent the Trustees additional requests, and he was denied time and again. Meanwhile, Trustees officials paid his site another visit. By the summer of 2019 they saw no signs of the barn they’d approved and ordered him to start building ASAP. Fearful he would lose out on building anything at all unless he started building immediately, Knight began work on a frame. Contrary to what the Trustees had approved, Knight wasn’t building a place to store piles of hay and feed but a place for him and his dear husband to whip up farm-fresh meals in the kitchen while his future children padded around the quaint living room. Leading upward to a window overlooking his crops, he built a staircase.
He didn’t relent when Trustees lawyers told him in an email that he was building the residential structure “strictly at [his own] risk,” according to the lawsuit. Nor when the Trustees said the structure he was building seemed to be too big by more than half—though Knight disagreed—and reminded him, again, that the Trustees would not permit a home of that size without an amendment that explicitly allowed it.
In 2019, the nonprofit filed a cease-and-desist order for all construction on the property, which remained in place for years. Knight complied with the order, but remained so convinced he would ultimately prevail and get to build his new house—that the Trustees would approve his request and grant him an amendment—that he went ahead and addressed another stipulation in the conservation restriction. He was allowed to have only one house on the property, so he started work on moving the original farmhouse to the unencumbered land he owns across the street, where his mom lives in another farmhouse. That way, when his house was approved and completed, it would be the only one there.
By October 2021, the Trustees still hadn’t approved Knight’s request to turn the barn into a residence. Instead, after inspectors caught a glimpse inside the structure during that fated site visit, the organization filed the lawsuit that has taken over his life. “They accused me of baiting and switching,” Knight tells me even though—he is convinced—it is the Trustees who have moved the goalposts throughout the process. In court documents, he denied that his construction projects violated the conservation restriction. “It’s funny because sometimes I’m like, ‘Wait, am I doing something wrong?’ It’s just been so much back and forth and craziness that sometimes all the facts get jumbled in my head, too. But then I sit back and say, ‘No. I am doing nothing wrong.’”
A less optimistic landowner might have seen what was coming or at least been less sanguine about his situation as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a powerful organization. Knight, however, has not only persisted in the face of his legal troubles but remained hopeful. In the weeks after he was sued, knowing Christmas was right around the corner, he went over to his half-built dream home and placed battery-powered candles in each of its nine windows. From across the street, he watched them flicker in the night. It looks so beautiful, he thought. “It made me feel happy. Because for a moment, it felt like it could be home.”
Conservation restrictions, though, don’t take feelings into account. They are ironclad legal contracts that don’t allow for much wiggle room, no matter how trifling a violation may seem to the offender. “While we view legal action as a last resort and still hope we can come to an amicable agreement,” the Trustees wrote in a statement, “we will not make exceptions that run afoul of our responsibilities to protect land that’s been under our care for nearly half a century.”
After all, any infraction—no matter how small—can be a slippery slope when the Trustees’ reputation—and fiduciary duty to uphold its charter—are on the line. How would donors feel to learn the Trustees went weak at the knees for a pretty farmhouse owned by a celebrity when nature’s bounty was at stake? Or when a charismatic landowner made a public spectacle out of flaunting the rules, no less?
The problems can go even deeper than that. If the Trustees failed to act in the face of a rule violation, according to multiple experts on these kinds of organizations, it could risk financial penalties or, in extreme cases, lose its nonprofit status—all fates that would place the totality of the Trustees’ conservation land in jeopardy. What’s more, the IRS forbids homeowners from benefiting financially from these protected properties. That’s because the feds give big tax breaks to owners who place their land in these trusts, and the IRS doesn’t want subsequent owners—who are often their children—to reap a windfall on the property by improving it despite restrictions. Sometimes these properties are sold for less than market value because of the restrictions on their use, and, as a result, owners pay less in property taxes on them. That’s why it’s important that owners don’t violate these restrictions, particularly in ways that would increase the value of the land, and also why amendments almost never allow for something as valuable as, say, better sight lines of stunning farmland. “When there’s an amendment, [it’s for] technical corrections or clarifications,” says Robb Johnson, executive director of the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition, “but not to make things better or more to the landowners’ liking.”
Typically, disputes over easements don’t get this ugly. In U.S. history, just over 650 have ever been tried in court, and only a handful have ever gone to trial over prohibited buildings on these kinds of properties, says Leslie Ratley-Beach, conservation defense director at the national Land Trust Alliance. In each case, the courts ruled in favor of the land trusts. “Land trusts do prefer to resolve all these things voluntarily. It’s only when you’re pushed to an extreme that they end up in court because they really do try very, very, very hard to work things out,” she says, adding, “When this happens, we don’t like this any more than the landowners do.”
Still, Knight sees some of what the Trustees allege as downright petty. He says the organization claimed there were other unauthorized uses of his property—which he believes they unearthed by scouring his 313,000-follower strong Instagram feed. He thinks photos of a joyous 80th birthday party for his mom in a barn were the basis for the nonprofit’s claim in the lawsuit that he was using the space for non-agricultural social events. He says the nuptials for his nephew in a flower garden were what earned him a talking to from the Trustees, who accused him of wanting to turn it into a wedding venue. In court documents, he also claimed that they suggested he might turn his property into an Airbnb, and that because his mother no longer owned the property, she should no longer tend to her bees there. (While the Trustees say they were aware of his public posts, particularly “because he and many of his followers descended on the Trustees’ social media platforms with angry and vitriolic comments,” they say the posts ultimately had no bearing on the lawsuit. They also claim no one ever told Knight his mom couldn’t tend to her bees.)
Knight finds it exasperating—after all, in the grand scheme of things, he believes he is an excellent steward of the land. Still, lately he’s found himself reluctantly scrolling Redfin and ogling farmland in upstate New York, where he might just go to leave this all behind. It would mean fewer visits from family and a dream deferred, putting his very own Shangri-la on the market and abandoning his Massachusetts roots.
In some ways, it’s hard to blame him if he did it. On a recent visit to the farmhouse of Knight’s discontent, the walls of his dream home were waterlogged, plywood was baking in the sun, and the floors were covered in about 100 pounds of bird crap. Still, Knight vows that he will build his farmhouse here. “If I didn’t have the money to fight them, I would probably cave,” he says. “But I will keep fighting.”