The enormous oak tree towered high above the ground, its gnarled, moss-covered branches fanning out in every direction. For 180 years, the tree flourished undisturbed on a swath of protected land in northern California.
Then, one day, backhoes and bulldozers showed up to the wooded area owned by Toni and Peter Thompson located just north of San Francisco.
The ancient tree was going to serve a new purpose, according to court documents filed last month — decorating a nearby property where the Thompsons were building a new home.
But attempting to relocate the tree and two other heritage oaks several years ago, a process that killed the plants and extensively damaged part of the surrounding environment, would prove to be a costly move for the Thompsons.
In a scathing 56-page decision in April, a Sonoma County judge ordered the couple to pay more than $586,000 in damages to fund restoration efforts because they “knowingly and intentionally” violated a conservation easement, an agreement that the 34-acre property must be left in its natural state.
Judge Patrick Broderick ruled in favor of the Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit responsible for enforcing easements, which sued the Thompsons over the tree removal and other environmental damage. Broderick skewered the Thompsons and accused them of repeatedly lying to members of the land trust, writing that the couple “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the Easement.”
“It was a very thoughtful, very thorough opinion that just covered all the ground that we could ask for,” said Sarah H. Sigman, an attorney who represents the land trust. “This is just an egregious violation from the beginning.”
The Thompsons, however, still insist the damages to the land were not intentional, Richard Freeman, the couple’s new attorney, told The Post.
“They went into this area because they appreciated the pastoral nature of it, the scenic beauty of it,” Freeman said. “They wouldn’t have wanted to do anything that was going to cause harm, damage or scar it.”
The land trust first became aware that something wasn’t quite right on the Thompsons’ property in 2014 after a neighbor reported seeing heavy machinery on the protected land, the Sonoma Press Democrat reported.
When staff from the trust arrived for a site visit, they were stunned by what greeted them.
“I was not prepared,” Bob Neale, the trust’s stewardship director, told the Press Democrat. “It was really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.”
Portions of the area that had once been blanketed by untouched native plants were reduced to mounds of loose dirt, and others were scraped down to bedrock, according to court documents. Some photos showed a massive oak tree in a trench with its roots bound and surrounded by yellow construction equipment. A dirt road stretching for about a third of a mile was also carved through the land, destroying 12 smaller trees and other vegetation in the way, the ruling said.
“The scale of the damage done was really pretty astonishing,” Sigman told The Post. “Those oaks and those plant communities were why this land was protected, because they were special.”
She added, “There are photographs that I’ve described as apocalyptic.”