A couple in northern California may think twice the next time they do their own yard work. Peter and Toni Thompson were ordered by a Sonoma County Judge to pay nearly $600,000 in damages after they uprooted a 180-year-old oak tree from their property that happened to be protected under a conservation easement.
The couple removed the heritage oak tree from their property in an attempt to move it to another home they built on the property next door. The Thompsons removed the tree, and more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt. However, the attempt to relocate the tree was unsuccessful and it, along with a dozen other trees on a path they bulldozed also died. Some vegetation surrounding the area was also destroyed.
The director with the Sonoma Land Trust, Bob Neale, told the Press Democrat that it was "really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I've ever seen."
The land trust sued the Thompsons, which resulted in a 19-day trial that ended in September last year. In a 56-page decision issued back in April, Sonoma County Judge Patrick M. Broderick ruled in favor for the Sonoma Land Trust, writing that the Thompsons knowingly violated the conservation easement and "demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the Easement.”
"They sought on numerous occasions to hide their actions to avoid discovery by Trust and, once Trust learned of the violations, fabricated excuses to obstruct Trust’s investigation and avoid enforcement of the Easement against them," the ruling stated.
The judge ordered the couple to pay a fine of $586,000, which will go toward environmental restoration on the property.
"Sonoma Land Trust made a promise to the donor and a commitment to the community to protect the integrity of properties covered by conservation easements,” Dave Koehler, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust said in a statement issued after the judge's ruling. "Our citizens believe strongly in protecting our natural resources and have demonstrated this belief by providing tax breaks to landowners whose properties include conservation easements. It is essential that both landowners of protected properties and taxpayers can trust Sonoma Land Trust to do our part in ensuring that these conservation easements are honored and the lands are protected forever."
The Thompsons decided to sell their estate following the ruling. They're also looking for a new trial, arguing that their previous attorney could not properly represent them for personal reasons.
"In our opinion, there's a lot of evidence that our side of the story really didn't get a chance to explain,” Peter Thompson told the Associated Press.
Photo: Sonoma Land Trust