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Fight over Santa Rosa oak trees lands $586K fine for homeowners

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Property now on the market for millions after owners lose conservation battle

An oak tree in the midst of being dug up.
One of the disputed oaks.
Courtesy Sonoma Land Trust

The sprawling 80-plus acre “wine country estate” at 7400 Bennett Valley Road, located on the rural fringe of Santa Rosa, listed for $8.45 million in April. The ad dubs the five-bed, four-and-a-half-bath, 4,891-square-foot home and surrounding land “the best of wine country.”

What that ad doesn’t mention was the starring role the property had in a years-long conservation drama that ended in a $586,289 fine for the current owners. A Sonoma County Superior Court ruled that, while renovating the property, Toni and Peter Thompson recklessly destroyed protected natural resources on the grounds, including felling three historic oak trees.

In 2009, 7400 Bennett Valley Road’s former owners granted an easement (a contractual agreement to preserve the land) to the Sonoma Land Trust, a conservation nonprofit.

“The easement permanently protects the natural, open space, ecological, and scenic values of the property,” as Superior Court Judge Patrick M. Broderick noted in an April ruling, “which include an exceptionally intact ecosystem dominated by largely undisturbed native vegetation.”

The Thompsons purchased the property in 2013 and, according to the court, proceeded to systematically violate the protections on it, most notably by digging up and killing three century-plus-old oak trees in an attempt to relocate them.

The trust took the Thompsons to court, and Judge Broderick excoriated the landowners, noting that the pair seemed unwilling to even acknowledge the damage.

Broderick said, in part, “Despite the severe harm that clearly resulted from their activities, in knowing violation of the easement, defendants continued to object up to and throughout trial that conditions on the easement property appeared to them to be largely recovered and aesthetically fine.”

Sonoma Land Trust

Handing down a $392,167 fee specifically for the destruction of the trees on top of other damages, the judge added that the case was made worse by what he calls constant dishonesty throughout the trial:

Defendants’ defenses are further undermined by their persistent failure to tell the truth. Defendants’ claims fail for the additional reason that defendants have little credibility and no documentary or photographic support. The vast majority of the testimony on cross-examination of Peter and Toni Thompson [...] was misleading, evasive, inconsistent with deposition testimony, or outright false.

[...]The Court finds that neither Mr. nor Ms. Thompson were credible or persuasive, nor could they support their version of key events with a single contemporaneous document.

The Thompsons put the property on the market after Broderick’s ruling. The listing includes an additional property not covered by the suit.

According to the Press Democrat, the couple are also pushing for a new trial, arguing inadequate representation.

The Sonoma Land Trust says that the nearly $600,000 in fines will be paid into a fund to help restore the property.

“Conservation easements are legally binding and people who purchase land under easement must understand that protecting these properties is not optional,” says Sarah Sigman, attorney for the trust.