Is a $586,000 Fine a Bit Steep for Chopping Down Trees?

Santa Rosa judge throws the book at an area couple for 'the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.'

Owing to a commitment to social equality, Nordic countries calculate certain fines by income. That way, low-earning individuals don’t have their lives ruined by a parking ticket and the affluent don’t regard tickets as a minor tax on doing whatever the hell they feel like. That led to a notorious $58,000 citation for speeding in a 50-mph zone in Helsinki.

Here in California, people routinely drive 85 miles per hour as they burst out of the Robin Williams Tunnel on their way to Wine Country, but once they get there, they’d better not cut down a tree. CBS reports that a Sonoma couple, Peter and Toni Thompson, were fined $$586,000 for cutting down a dozen trees, including a 180-year-old oak. It happened on 34 acres of land near Bennett Valley that was protected by a conservation easement through the Sonoma Land Trust, and they were well into their renovation (so to speak) when their neighbor ratted them out for removing what turned out to be 3,000 cubic feet of debris without a permit.

One wonders if they’d had any face-to-face contact, because that’s a lot of beeping from heavy earth-moving equipment as it shifts into reverse.

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat quotes the remarkably livid judge in the case, who said the Thompsons “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement.”

It was “the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen,” said Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale.

Court documents, the Press-Democrat states, depict a tree that wasn’t so much chopped down as snuffed out. The protected land was “scraped down to bedrock in some places and a trenched, 180-year-old oak uprooted and bound so it could be dragged to an adjoining parcel to adorn the grounds of a newly constructed estate home.”

Of course, a 180-year-old tree is something special. In 1839, California wasn’t a state, Martin Van Buren was president, and the first telegraph line was erected. 

But why is this parcel so important? Conservationists had hoped to keep it undisturbed for wildlife migrations, something the previous property owners had enshrined in an agreement. Worse yet, Peter Thompson appears to be a shady contractor with an extensive record of fraudulent deals and other shenanigans. He defended his actions by saying he hadn’t had sufficient chance to explain his side, but it wasn’t enough to reduce the ginormous fine.

But be kind to your oak trees. You never know if you might have a brand-new species on your property.

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