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Ripping Up Protected Land Costs Couple Nearly $600K

Judge blasts violation of conservation easement
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 9, 2019 6:04 PM CDT
A Sonoma Land Trust photo shows a 180-year-old heritage oak tree being excavated from an easement property in Sonoma. A California judge ordered the landowners to pay nearly $600,000 for damage to the...   (Crystal Simons/Sonoma Land Trust via AP)

(Newser) – A neighbor wondered what heavy equipment was doing on Sonoma Mountain in northern California. Under a conservation easement, the land was supposed to stay in its natural state. So an official of the Sonoma Land Trust paid a visit in 2014. What Bob Neale found was "really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I've ever seen." The trust then took the rare step of suing the landowners. For the violation, a judge has ordered them to pay more than $586,000 toward the environmental restoration of the property, the Press Democrat reports. The judge was as appalled as Neale, saying in a 57-page ruling that Peter and Toni Thompson "demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement."

The Thompsons had bulldozed a haul road through the land, undisturbed until then, to move a 180-year-old oak they uprooted and bound, intending to install it on the grounds of a new estate home on land they owned next door. That tree, more than a dozen others, and vegetation on the site died, court records show. More than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock was removed when the haul road was graded. Some places were stripped down to bedrock. No permits had been issued for any of the work. The Thompsons have hired a new lawyer and put their property—including their neighboring ranch—up for sale, for $8.45 million. They want a new trial, per the Los Angeles Times. "It appears, for a variety of reasons," said the lawyer, Richard Freeman, "that the full story did not get told." (Read more Sonoma County stories.)

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