Sonoma County couple ordered to pay nearly $600,000 for uprooting 180-year-old tree on protected property

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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.

The previous landowners who initiated the protection deal, Katherine and Peter Drake, valued the property for its heritage oaks, meadows filled with abundant native grasses and seasonal ponds. They bought the land in 2008 and in 2009 extinguished the development rights in a gifted deal with the Sonoma Land Trust.

The property off Bennett Valley Road is part of a natural corridor that conservationists hope to keep open for migrating wildlife.

“Sometimes you get things in little jewel boxes,” said Wendy Eliot, conservation director for the Sonoma Land Trust.

The group oversees 46 such easements totaling 7,019 acres in Sonoma County. Another 108,000 acres are covered under easements held by the tax-funded Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. That largely private open space forms a key part of the county’s conservation landscape.

The sale to the Thompsons came with the requisite disclosures about the restrictions placed on an easement- protected property. Sonoma Land Trust’s standard outreach to new owners includes ensuring they understand the terms of an easement over their land and the rights of the group to enter and monitor the property, Neale said.

But while the Thompsons were building their new estate home on their ranch in 2014, they apparently decided the oak trees from the easement property would provide a nice accent, land trust representatives said. Word of their removal reached the group. In the spirit of collaboration, Neale said, they tried for months to work with the Thompsons to resolve the problem and develop restoration plans, until they concluded the landowners weren’t operating in good faith.

Thompson in an interview identified himself as the executive director for a Marin County organization, One Kid at a Time, that serves disadvantaged youth. He has worked previously as a contractor on large public works projects.

Public records show he had his contractor’s license revoked in 2011 after a series of disciplinary actions by the Contractors State License Board that included failure to pay a civil penalty imposed by the board after a subcontractor complained he was owed more than $30,000 for work and materials.

A board representative said Thompson’s license was first suspended and, later, revoked because he refused to cooperate with the investigation or pay the imposed $2,000 civil penalty.

Past actions also include unauthorized substitution of subcontractors on large public construction jobs including a senior center in the city of Sunnyvale and two school projects in the Los Angeles area, according to public records.

The $9.4 million Sunnyvale project, begun in 2002, resulted in at least three cases of what the board deemed fraud, in which Thompson charged the city for costs exceeding what he paid to individual subcontractors, according to court records. In one case, the city overpaid $138,523, according to board documents.

When word of the Thompsons’ grading and tree work on Sonoma Mountain began to get out, inquiries by the land trust were met with obstruction, including misrepresentations that Peter Thompson’s email was not working, delaying responses to efforts to arrange a site visit, Broderick wrote in his court ruling.

It appeared the Thompsons were trying to provide time for crews to complete relocation of one of the oak trees from the easement property, haul away the pieces of a large oak that already had died and backfill the hole it left before trust representatives arrived, Broderick found. A third tree had been dug up but had proved impossible to move because its roots were entangled in boulders, so workers packed soil back around its base.

“If u guys didn’t take so long we would’ve been under the radar!!!” read a text message sent at the time from Peter Thompson’s cellphone to Erik Hess, his tree removal contractor. It was entered as evidence and cited twice in the judge’s ruling.

The Thompsons tried to convince land trust officials that they were attempting to save one of the large oaks from planned PG&E pruning by moving it away from some power lines on the property in an area where the utility held an overlapping easement.

“This was a lie,” Broderick stated in his ruling.

Further, the two other trees that died were not within the PG&E easement at all. And PG&E does not have authority to unilaterally infringe on a conservation easement, Broderick wrote.

The judge’s ruling validates the binding nature of conservation easements, as well as the land trust’s commitment to enforcing them, Neale said.

“We made a promise to Kathy Drake when we took the easement on,” he said. “We made a promise to the land, and we made a promise and an agreement with our community that we’re going to do these things we say we’re going to do. That’s a commitment we take seriously, and that’s why we went through this whole thing.”

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