Jury awards $5.4 million to local grower

 

November 23, 2004

 
By Quintin Cushner/Staff Writer
 
qcushner@pulitzer.net or 805-739-2217
 
The Santa Maria Times
 
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Santa Maria, California 93456-00400
 
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Santa Barbara County must pay more than $5.4 million to a local vegetable grower barred from farming an Orcutt property because it was fraudulently declared an environmentally sensitive wetland, a jury decided Monday.

Adam Bros. Farming Inc. and Iceberg Holdings sued the county Planning and Development Department, along with three county employees and a consultant, over 95 acres of a 268-acre parcel near Solomon Road and Highway 1 in Orcutt.

The Adams bought the land in 1997 and later tried to begin agricultural grading on the site to grow a mix of broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, before the county intervened.

The county had declared a portion of the property a wetland before the purchase.

The jury verdict was read Monday at Superior Court in Santa Maria after three weeks of testimony in the case. The panel found that the wetland delineation conducted by consultant Katherine Rindlaub at the county's behest was not valid. They also decided that Adam Bros. was denied due process based on the land being designated wetland and that the company's equal-protection rights were violated when it was singled out with the false wetland designation. Jurors also decreed that Rindlaub conspired against Adam Bros. with former county employee Elihu Gevirtz.

Jurors on Monday also found that only 14 acres on the property qualified as wetland and awarded a total of $5,472,207 in compensatory damages to Adam Bros. and Iceberg Holdings.

Four individuals involved in the case were ordered by the jury to pay a total of $130,000 in punitive damages. Former employees of Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Gevirtz and Dan Gira were ordered to pay $40,000 and $50,000 respectively; current Deputy Director of Santa Barbara County Zoning Administration Division Noel Langle was liable for $10,000 and consultant Rindlaub owes the companies $30,000, the jury decreed.

If the ruling stands, Santa Barbara County would pay the individuals' share, though the Board of Supervisors would have to vote on whether to cover the punitive damages.

Defense lawyer David Pettit said he was disappointed by the verdict, adding that any appeal would be up to the Board of Supervisors.

Seizing on a decision made by the judge during the trial, Chief Assistant County Counsel Alan Seltzer said the county's lawyers would recommend an appeal. During the trial, Visiting Superior Court Judge Roger Randall ruled that Adam Bros. would have needed a permit to farm the land in the first place, and the company never applied.

"The law cannot support this decision of the jury," Seltzer said, adding that the county would file a motion attacking the verdict based on the initial lack of a permit.

Plaintiff's lawyer Richard Brenneman, who was pleased by the jury's decision, disagrees with Seltzer's assessment because he believes the wetlands designation was an impediment to applying for a permit in the first place.

"The county of Santa Barbara intentionally intended to deprive people of their property rights by falsely delineating 95 acres of wetland," Brenneman said. "You can't farm on these wetlands because it's a sensitive habitat."

Brenneman believes the jury's verdict is a breakthrough for property owners.

"The verdict in this case, for possibly the first time, establishes a ruling that holds a county, its individual employees and consultants hired by the county, accountable for their reckless conduct in hampering an individual's ability to make use of their land," Brenneman said in a statement. "Today's verdict will go a long way in creating a more fair and honest permitting and planning process for everyone."

The lawsuit was filed in 2000 and later dismissed by Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville. However, in 2002 the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles reversed Melville's dismissal and allowed the plaintiff to proceed on four of the nine causes of action in the complaint.

The property still cannot legally be farmed, however, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a stop order based on the wetland delineation. That issue likely will be litigated through federal court in January, Brenneman said.
 
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