California couple to pay nearly $600,000 for uprooting tree

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — A California judge ordered a couple to pay nearly $600,000 for uprooting a 180-year-old oak tree that later died and causing other damage to a protected property about an hour north of San Francisco.

The damage was discovered in 2014, when a concerned neighbor reported heavy equipment and digging on a property protected under a conservation easement.

Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale went to check and found more than 3,000 cubic yards (2,300 cubic meters) of dirt and rock had been removed and a 180-year-old oak tree had been uprooted without permits for any of the work, the Press Democrat reported Wednesday.

The heritage oak was uprooted and bound so that it could be dragged to an adjoining ranch where property owners Peter and Toni Thompson had built a new estate home. That heritage oak and two others the landowners sought to move over a haul road they bulldozed through the previously undisturbed site all died, along with a dozen more trees and other vegetation, according to court records.

The damage prompted the Sonoma Land Trust to sue the Thompsons.

In a judgment finalized last week, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick sided with the land trust, calling out the Thompsons for "knowing and intentional" violations of a legally binding conservation deal. He said the couple had "demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement."

Broderick ordered the couple to pay more than $586,000 in damages toward environmental restoration and other costs.

Shortly after Broderick's ruling, the Thompsons put the protected property and a neighboring ranch on the market for $8.45 million.

The couple is filing for a new trial on claims that their trial attorney could not provide proper representation amid a private family matter that arose before the court proceeding, said Richard Freeman, their new attorney.

"There are so many personal tragic issues throughout this case that were very painful to deal with and actually really affected the ability to tell our side of the story," Peter Thompson said. "In our opinion, there's a lot of evidence that our side of the story really didn't get a chance to explain."

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