County agrees to pay $450,000 to settle land-use suit with grower
(Note from KH: Another win for county farmers; hope this is setting a trend :-)
June 16, 2005
By Chuck Schultz
Santa Barbara News-Press Staff Writer
Santa Barbara News Press
Santa Barbara, California
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Santa Barbara County, taking another financial hit in legal disputes about Santa Maria Valley farmland, has agreed to pay $450,000 to grower Ed Sutti to settle a lawsuit involving grading on his agricultural property.
Although the final documents have yet to be signed, terms of the settlement were agreed to and recorded late last week in Santa Barbara Superior Court and will be presented to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, a county lawyer said.
The settlement is the latest chapter in legal and land-use battles between the county and the Sutti family stretching over more than six years.
Under the agreement, the county will pay Mr. Sutti $425,000 by July 2, 2005, and the farmer may have to apply for county permits for an unapproved agricultural refrigeration unit on his property at Betteravia and Black roads, Deputy County Counsel William Dillon said.
County inspectors next month will determine whether a permit is required for the cooler, and if so, Mr. Sutti will be required to apply for a permit by October 1, 2005.
The remaining $25,000 of the settlement money will be held in an account to cover the county's permit-review costs, and any amount not used for that purpose will be turned over to Mr. Sutti.
One factor that probably weighed heavily in the county's decision to settle was a Santa Maria jury that recently awarded $5.6 million to Adam Brothers Farming Inc. of Santa Maria in a lawsuit alleging the county had wrongly designated 95 acres of farmland in Orcutt as protected wetlands.
That was the largest land-use judgment ever against the county, which has taken the case to the state Court of Appeal in Ventura.
"It would be hard to say that (award) wasn't a factor" in the county's decision to settle the Sutti case rather than go to trial, Mr. Dillon acknowledged.
Mr. Sutti's lawsuit, filed several years ago, had been set for trial on July 5, 2005.
"It's an expensive proposition to try a case like this," Mr. Dillon said. "We were looking at another $100,000 to go to trial," he said. The county has already spent about $100,000 on extra legal help for the case.
"We thought we had a good case and were expecting to win, but realized that when you go in front of a jury, things can go wrong, and you can lose," he said. "This (settlement) seemed like a good way to bring the case to closure and move on."
Mr. Sutti could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Scott Baker of Arroyo Grande, confirmed the general terms of the settlement agreement, but declined to discuss specifics until it is completed.
Mr. Dillon drafted the document this week, but "neither my client or I have seen it" or signed it yet, Mr. Baker said Wednesday afternoon. He declined further comment until then because of the "sensitive relationship between the county and my client."
"It's been too long a road and too much history here," the lawyer said. "We're trying to create a new chapter and turn the page on that bad history."
About five years ago, the county sued Mr. Sutti for allegedly violating a grading ordinance by bulldozing a wetland area on his 510-acre parcel that was formerly the site of a Holly Sugar plant.
County law requires a farmer to get a permit for any grading that could cause significant damage to the environment.
A Superior Court judge in Santa Maria, however, ruled that Mr. Sutti was a "good steward of the land," dismissed the suit and ordered the county to pay his legal costs in that case.
That ruling was later upheld by an appeals court.
Soon thereafter, Mr. Sutti fired back by suing the county for allegedly violating his civil rights and illegally "taking" his land by wrongly enforcing the grading ordinance.
While his lawsuit slowly made its way through the court system, the county District Attorney's Office prosecuted Mr. Sutti for filing tax returns that allegedly understated his farm company's earnings by tens of millions of dollars, as well as for arson for allegedly setting fire to a warehouse in 1999 to collect insurance money.
He pleaded no contest in August 2002 to felony arson, insurance fraud and attempted perjury.
He was sentenced a year later to 180 days in County Jail and ordered to pay the back taxes as well as fines, in amounts to be determined by a state auditor.
In the Adam Brothers Farming judgment, jurors levied $130,000 in punitive damages against several current and former employees of the county Planning and Development Department and a county-hired consultant, who were deemed to have maliciously conspired to falsely designate portions of the property as wetlands.
County officials and lawyers deny there was any such conspiracy.
Copyright 2005, The News-Press.