Sonoma County couple ordered to pay nearly $600,000 for uprooting 180-year-old tree on protected property
Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale had seen pictures.
So he thought he had a good idea of what awaited him when he went out to inspect a protected piece of land on the north flank of Sonoma Mountain a few years back. A concerned neighbor had reported heavy equipment and questionable activity on property protected under a conservation easement and, thus, intended to remain in its natural state.
But while photos conveyed “a sense of it, it’s nothing compared to actually seeing it,” Neale, a soft-spoken man, said of the environmental damage he witnessed that day in 2014. “I was not prepared.”
Neale and an associate found a patch of private landscape above Bennett Valley scraped down to bedrock in some places and a trenched, 180-year-old oak uprooted and bound so it could be dragged to an adjoining parcel to adorn the grounds of a newly constructed estate home, according to court documents.
That heritage oak and two others the landowners sought to move over a haul road they bulldozed through the previously undisturbed site all died, along with a dozen more trees and other vegetation, according to court records.
The damage would eventually prompt Sonoma Land Trust to sue the property owners, Peter and Toni Thompson, a highly unusual step for the private nonprofit. Last month, it prevailed in what representatives hailed as a landmark legal victory.
The court battle came well after the full extent of the losses was discovered on the 34-acre conservation property. Grading for the haul road in 2014 removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, the ruling found. No permits were obtained for any of the work, according to court documents.
The Thompsons had construction crews dredge an existing lake on their adjacent 47-acre residential spread, known as Henstooth Ranch, and dump the soil on the protected parcel, extending the haul road to accomplish that work, according to court documents.
“It was,” said Neale, a 25-year veteran in the open space field, “really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.”
In his blunt 57-page ruling, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick sided strongly with the land trust, calling out the Thompsons for “knowing and intentional” violations of a legally binding conservation deal. He said the couple had shown a “persistent failure to tell the truth” as the case unfolded and had “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement.”
Broderick ordered the couple to pay more than $586,000 in damages toward environmental restoration and other costs outlined in a judgment finalized last week.
Peter Thompson and the couple’s new attorney, Richard Freeman, said the dispute with the land trust snowballed amid demands to cover the organization’s escalating attorney fees and other costs.
The day after the ruling came out, the couple put their ranch on the market as well as the separate protected parcel - which the Thompsons purchased in 2013 from another couple with the easement already in place. The two properties are listed for $8.45 million.
Even so, the couple is filing for a new trial, largely on claims that the Thompsons’ trial attorney could not supply proper representation amid a private family matter that arose before the 19-day court proceeding, Freeman said.
Freeman said his predecessor had asked the judge to reschedule but his petition was denied, and the Thompsons’ defense suffered as a result against “a very well-funded and very aggressive” opponent, he said.
“There are so many personal tragic issues throughout this case that were very painful to deal with and actually really affected the ability to tell our side of the story,” Peter Thompson said. “In our opinion, there’s a lot of evidence that our side of the story really didn’t get a chance to explain.”
But Broderick said the Thompsons simply lacked credibility and made choices that drove up costs and restoration challenges. He found they had sought to cover up the damage done to the property and obstructed the land trust’s investigation.
“(B)oth Peter and Toni Thompson displayed a marked lack of respect for the terms of the easement, the conservation values and extraordinary ecosystem that the easement protects, and for the (land) trust as steward and trustee of those conservation values,” Broderick wrote.
The property is relatively small by Sonoma Land Trust standards. The group has played a lead role in protecting some of the largest undeveloped swaths of Sonoma County, including the 2009 acquisition that preserved the Jenner Headlands.