When Peter and Toni Thompson bought their Sonoma County land in 2014, they were made aware of the land’s conservation easement, which protected much of the natural resources on the land. That didn’t stop them from uprooting and eventually killing a 180-year-old heritage oak tree in order to put it next to their new home on a different part of the property.
Now, a judge is ordering them to pay nearly $600,000 for the move.
The sentence was part of a lawsuit from the Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship, which protects natural resources through conservation easements in Sonoma County. The organization claims that the couple blatantly ignored the easement by moving 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock and moving the tree 1/3 of a mile, eventually killing it.
On April 16, Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick entered a judgment that ordered the couple to pay $586,289 into an escrow account to fund restoration of the damaged ecosystem
The land in question was voluntarily placed under a conservation easement in 2009 by the previous owners, Katherine and Peter Drake. In donating the easement to Sonoma Land Trust, the Drakes intended to protect this land in its natural state in perpetuity.
“When we purchased this lovely 34-acre parcel, it appeared to have been untouched for many decades. The easement was intended to protect this special land forever, regardless of who owned the property,” said Katherine Drake.
Conservation easements are voluntary, permanent agreements that private landowners place over their lands to protect important natural resources forever. They are developed in partnership with land trusts, like Sonoma Land Trust, which agree to protect the conservation values and uphold the terms of the conservation easement in perpetuity. The land stays in private ownership and the conservation easement becomes part of the permanent title record. Future landowners are required to follow all the terms of the conservation easement.
The Thompsons’ illegal actions included hiring contractors with heavy equipment to excavate three heritage oak trees located on the protected property (one very large tree was estimated to have been 180 years old) and then dragging the trees through shallow and sensitive soils to the adjoining Henstooth Ranch, where the trees were to enhance the landscape of a new home and accessory buildings. Additional harm resulted from bulldozing a 1/3-mile road cut to haul the trees, killing and removing 12 more trees in the process, and dumping pond sediment laden with invasive weeds onto the protected property.
The court found that the Thompsons systematically concealed these actions and related damage from Sonoma Land Trust. The Thompsons repeatedly resisted efforts by Sonoma Land Trust to evaluate the extent of the destruction and develop a realistic restoration plan. The court also concluded that, without the Land Trust’s knowledge or permission, the Thompsons regraded the property and planted non-native grass in an attempt to cover up their violations. According to the court, these cosmetic measures, which also violated the easement, failed to restore the ecology of the property and instead caused further damage.