Calif. Couple Fined $600K for Uprooting, Killing Ancient Tree

May 20, 2019

A judge has ordered a Sonoma, Calif., couple to pay nearly $600,000 for uprooting a nearly two-century-old oak tree from the property they bought. The 180-year-old oak tree was protected under a conservation easement.

The Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit group, sued the couple for damaging the ancient tree as well as other surrounding vegetation that was protected under a conservation easement. The couple purchased the 34-acre property that included the tree. They attempted to move the tree and other vegetation to a place closer to their newly built ranch home within the property.

But the heritage tree did not survive the move.

Bob Neale, director of the Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship, said the couple was made aware of the conservation easement and the terms of it when they purchased the property.

The damage was discovered in 2014 and has been in legal proceedings. A concerned neighbor first reported to the Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship that they saw heavy equipment and digging on the property. Neale said he found more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock had been removed, and that the 180-year-old oak tree had been uprooted without permits for the work.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick sided with the Sonoma Land Trust and wrote in his ruling that the land owners, Peter and Toni Thompson, “knowingly and intentionally” violated the conservation rules. They “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement,” he wrote.

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

The couple reportedly plan to file a new lawsuit. They say the damage was not intentional.

“They went into this area because they appreciated the pastoral nature of it, the scenic beauty of it,” Richard Freeman, the couple’s attorney, told The Washington Post. “They wouldn’t have wanted to do anything that was going to cause harm, damage, or scar it.”

The couple has since listed the property, including the neighboring ranch, on the market for $8.45 million.