Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.