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Couple Fined Nearly $600,000 for Killing 180-Year-Old Oak Tree - Carlos Gamino
News from Attorney Carlos Gamino

California Couple Fined Nearly $600,000 for Uprooting 180-Year-Old Oak Tree

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By Carlos Gamino

A Sonoma County, California couple is now facing a $586,000 fine for digging up an ancient oak tree because they intended to use it to decorate their new property. The oak tree, which was more than 180 years old – among the oldest of its kind – was located on protected land in Northern California. The 34 acres of land the tree was on was subject to an agreement that said it must be left in its natural state, and according to the court documents filed in April 2019, the Toni and Peter Thompson knew and intentionally violated the agreement.

A Sonoma County judge ordered the fines to help fund restoration efforts on the property, saying that the Thompsons “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the Easement.” 

The patch of land where the tree was once thriving is supervised by the Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit that’s responsible for enforcing easements.

The Sonoma Land Trust received a report from a neighbor who noticed heavy machinery on the protected land, which is what tipped them off that something was amiss. They sent staff members out for a site visit. According to Bob Neale, one of the staffers who went to the property, “It was really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.”

Parts of the land, which was originally covered in native plants, were covered in mounds of loose dirt. Other areas were scraped right down to the bedrock, and the Thompsons had paid contractors to crave an 0.3-mile stretch of dirt road leading to the tree, destroying a dozen smaller trees and a lot of other vegetation.

The Thompsons uprooted the 180-year-old tree first, but it didn’t survive – so they had it cut up and hauled away. They then tried to relocate two other trees; one’s roots were too tangled to remove it from the ground, and it later died. Finally, when the Thompsons successfully removed a third ancient tree from the landscape, they planted it in their driveway… and it later died.

Even worse, the Thompsons had a contractor dredge a pond on their own property and paid him to deposit the sediment on the protected land.

What Do You Think?

Do you think the penalty was steep enough for the Thompsons, or should they have been given lower fines? I’d love for you to share your thoughts on this, so join me on Facebook or on Twitter and chime in!

Carlos Gamino