Jury awards $5.4 million to local
November 23, 2004
By Quintin Cushner/Staff Writer
The Santa Maria Times
P.O. Box 400
Santa Maria, California 93456-00400
800-404-0009 or 805-739-2220 ext. 2250
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
Copyright 2004, Pulitzer Central Coast Newspapers