In a landmark five-year legal battle pitting private property owners against the Sonoma Land Trust, a judge cut down the owners and took them to the woodshed.
The Sonoma Land Trust is the nonprofit steward to “more than 50,000 acres of beautiful, productive and environmentally significant land” up in wine country, which makes them sound like very peaceful and harmonious types. But you do not want to see them in court.
That’s the hard lesson just learned by Sonoma land owners Peter and Toni Thompson, owners of a 34-acre pastoral parcel that a previous owner had deemed protected with the Land Trust. The couple destroyed more than a dozen protected trees, including a 180-year-old oak tree, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The Sonoma County Superior Court has ordered them to pay $580,000 in damages, and the public shaming for their tree destruction has now been splashed nationally in the pages of the Washington Post. (That article is paywalled, but a free version appears in today’s East Bay Times.)
In the Thompsons’ defense, they didn’t mean to kill that tree, or the dozen others that they also destroyed purportedly by accident. They merely meant to move the same trees to a new property they were buying next door. But a tragicomedy of errors led to the murder of pretty much every tree, plant, and living thing they tried to move, and moreover, the Press Democrat found that “No permits were obtained for any of the work.”
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick excoriated the Thompsons in his 57-page ruling, saying that their “knowing and intentional” violations of the Land Trust deal “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement” and that the two showed a “persistent failure to tell the truth.”
There was pretty compelling evidence that the two knew they were fully violating the terms of the deal, including an angry text message from Peter Thompson to one of the tree removal contractors which read, “If u guys didn’t take so long we would’ve been under the radar!!!”
These land trust deals are not uncommon in pastoral places like wine country, and wealthy property owners can essentially print free money by entering agreements to not destroy the trees and the environment on land they own. It’s very easy to maintain the terms of these deals! But don’t cry for the Thompsons, as their fines and court fees will be covered many times over. The Press Democrat report they’ve put the two properties on the market for $8.45 million.