Couple must pay $586,000 in damages for violating conservation easement

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

The couple uprooted heritage oak trees and did other environmental damage to a protected parcel of land.

If you have a conservation easement on your property, don’t mess with anything on it — someone is bound to notice. A couple from Sonoma County, California, found that out the hard way, according to a story reported in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. The article describes how the Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship took the unusual step of suing Peter and Toni Thompson for disturbing a piece of property with just such an easement attached, winning a landmark ruling.

The story goes back to 2014, when a concerned neighbor reported heavy equipment and questionable activity on the 34-acre property owned by the couple above Bennett Valley on the north flank of Sonoma Mountain. The neighbor knew that the parcel was protected under a conservation easement and was supposed to remain in its natural state.

The Thompsons had purchased the land in 2013 from another couple with the easement already in place. The previous owners initiated the protection deal because they 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.

Bob Neale, stewardship director of the Sonoma Land Trust and an associate followed up on the neighbor’s report and inspected the site. What they found shocked them. The land had been scraped down to bedrock in some places, and a 180-year-old heritage oak had been uprooted and bound so that it could be dragged to an adjoining 47-acre parcel known also owned by the couple where they’d built a large estate home called Henstooth Ranch.

The owners had also created a haul road by bulldozing through the previously undisturbed site. The heritage oak and two others did not survive, and dozen more trees and other vegetation also died. The grading operation for the haul road removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, but no permits were obtained for any of the work, according to court documents.

Neale told the reporter that photos taken of the damage conveyed “a sense of it, but it’s nothing compared to actually seeing it. I was not prepared.”

In addition, the couple had construction crews dredge an existing lake on their other piece of property. The soil from that dredging was dumped on the protected land to extend the haul road, according to court documents.

The court battle came some time after the full extent of the damage was discovered. The damage would eventually prompt Sonoma Land Trust to sue the property owners, a highly unusual step for the private nonprofit. Last month, it prevailed in what representatives hailed as a landmark legal victory.

“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.”

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick didn’t mince words. In a blunt 57-page ruling, he sided strongly with the land trust, calling out the Thompsons for “knowing and intentional” violations of a legally binding conservation deal. He stated that 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. The day after his ruling came out, the couple put Henstooth Ranch on the market as well as the separate protected parcel. The two properties together are listed at $8.45 million.

The couple is filing for a new trial on claims that their trial attorney could not supply proper representation because of a private family matter that arose before the 19-day court proceeding.

But Broderick said the Thompsons simply lacked credibility. He also found they’d sought to cover up the damage done to the property and obstruct the land trust’s investigation.

“Both 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.