About a year ago I found myself in the Ukiah Court house, being sued by Barbara Goodell, Steve Wood, Karen Alteras, and others. Why did the Anderson Valley Land Trust in downtown Boonville sue me?
I will try to answer this question as best I can.
I was born on upper Peachland Road in 1974 in the former Heryford Homestead. The house and property is one of the original homestead properties in the valley built and settled in the 1800s. It has one of the last apple dryers left in the Valley from our heyday as an apple production region. As Briana Burns, my mother, had often written about in the AVA, it was homesteaded in the 1800s by Clem Heryford and family, and later in the early 1900s by Italian immigrant Tony Delaqua. Briana also compiled the diary of Clem Heryford for the Anderson Valley Historical Society and published it for sale through the Little Red School House museum near the foot of Peachland Road. My family found the property in 1969 and finalized the purchase in 1970.
In our 50-year ownership of this property we have always tried to be good stewards of the land and its resources. We have harvested the walnuts from the 80-year-old walnut orchard, canned cider and juice from the 80-year-old heirloom apple varieties, somewhat unsuccessfully attempted wine-making from the 80-year-old vines, run livestock in the pastures, grown and sold produce at the farmers markets, and done what we could to heal erosion from a logging operation back in the 1940s and to repair and regrow the second-growth redwood forest.
My family were early supporters of the Anderson Valley Land Trust in the 1990s when the organization was founded. The AVLT's original mission, to protect land and watersheds that fed the Navarro river, aligned with my family's vision. Our property includes part of Tony Creek, a small seasonal creek which drains Lone Tree Ridge and most of upper Peachland into Conn creek and from there into the Navarro.
In 2005 my family created a conservation easement on our property held in trust by the AVLT. It seemed a good way to protect the redwoods and creek for the future. We have recently discovered that around the time we were drafting our easement, the AVLT was expanding their mission from protecting the Navarro watersheds—a goal we shared for our property—-to the much broader goal of, roughly, “protecting our unique rural landscape” “from signs of human habitation and commercial use.” Since our property had been logged and farmed for more than 100 years, and since we continued to use the land for agriculture, livestock, residential, camping, and forestry, this expanded mission really didn’t fit our situation so well; but we were unaware of the expanded mission at the time, and fortunately, no language of that sort is part of our easement, and only what's actually written into our easement, which is a binding contract, has any legal standing.
Many of you reading this know the board members of the AVLT. The current board members are; Steve Wood, Barbara Goodell, Karen Alteras, Rachel Turner Williams, Jesse Rathbun, Patrick Miller, Dave Hopmann, Glynnis Jones, and Nancy Hornor.
I know some of them quite well. I spent my life growing up with them and their children and eating at their tables. To see these names on a lawsuit against me feels like a knife in the back. I know it was a knife in my mother Briana's heart. I encourage those of you who know these valley people to talk to them. Ask them to tell their side of the story, either publicly or privately. And ask them to talk to me. I know there are two sides to every story, and this is my side. But I want to hear the other side. I have been asking these board members to talk to me about their side for the last six years, but mostly, they refuse. It seems they would rather just sue. Wouldn't talking be the Boonville way of doing things before you file a lawsuit? That's what I got out of my AV upbringing. I think Dean Titus is the only AVLT board member who also has an AV upbringing, and he was on the AVLT board for many years. I have always considered him to be clear-headed and thoughtful. He quit the AVLT board shortly before I got a process server at my front door with a lawsuit. I guess that could just be a coincidence.
What does it mean to have a conservation easement on your property with the AVLT? In short, it's a document that spells out what can and can't happen on the property. It's a bit like being in a homeowner’s association, to use a very simplified analogy. Some other easement examples that most people know are access easements, or water rights, which you can sell or gift to another party who then owns those rights. We gifted our conservation rights to the AVLT in trust, in the form of a conservation easement. Our easement spells out things like: you can't clear cut the redwoods, you can farm and run a certain amount of livestock, you can run certain types of home businesses, such as hospitality events or lodging; you can do selective logging with limitations; you can camp and hunt and generally enjoy recreational use of the property. In fact, we were so sure we wanted to do the last one, recreation, that we wrote it into the document as one of the goals to be "furthered," i.e. encouraged, by the AVLT's involvement. We had always enjoyed recreation on our property and the ability to camp, hike, hunt, and so on was one of the huge positives to owning such a labor-intensive property. Being able to enjoy the property with family and friends in our free time was a wonderful way to connect with the land, the valley, and the community.
We also included in our easement that "off-road recreational use of motorized vehicles is not allowed" with the thought that we never wanted to see vehicles ripping up the land just for fun. But we also added that "use of motorized vehicles is permitted anywhere on the property for forestry, agriculture and restoration." That seemed to cover what we were hoping the easement would accomplish: permitting a reasonable range of uses while preventing gross abuses that could seriously damage our land.
In early 2017, my mom, Briana Burns, passed away. I now own the property I was born and raised on with my aging aunt and uncle. I was busy dealing with the emotion of saying goodbye to a parent and putting my mom's simple affairs in order when, to my disbelief, I got served with a lawsuit at my front door. So did my aunt and uncle in Wisconsin, who are in their 80s.
The lawsuit is a bit vague. It asked, among other things, for a court to rule that anything on the property that violates county code would now also be a violation of our easement agreement. That doesn’t sound good. County code changes all the time; and if a court ever ruled for what the AVLT is asking for, the AVLT could force the demolition of the farmhouse and original structures on our property, all of which were built prior to the existence of county code, as well as prior to the existence of our easement. Even more confusing is a letter the AVLT sent us in 2015 in which they said, “It is important for all easement holders to understand that the AVLT does not set nor enforce County policies about land use.” This lawsuit seemed to be saying the opposite. And if a judge ever grants the AVLT this power to enforce county code, then any one of the other 30 easement properties around the valley are now in our same position. Would anyone have signed an easement with the AVLT knowing that they would be serving as a watchdog for the county? The irony is that in our dealings with the AVLT, they have shown a very limited understanding of county code.
Why the AVLT wants this is unclear to me. Since 2014 the AVLT has claimed that building non-residential structures on our property is restricted by them. Our easement has no restrictions on non-residential structures, and only limits residences. We have repeatedly offered to add language limiting non-residential structures to our easement document, in order to clarify any imagined ambiguities in this area. The AVLT has not responded to our offers. In fact, in 2014 they said they would no longer talk to us. When my mom, Briana, came to Boonville in 2015 to talk with them in person they refused to meet with her. This includes then-board members Barbara Goodell, Karen Alteras, and Dean Titus, who have known my mom for over 40 years. She wrote them letters asking them to talk. They refused. This was all very emotionally stressful for my community-minded mother who thought these people were her lifelong community of friends. Then she died. Then they sued me.
This property requires traversing it to keep things functional. Our water source is a spring on Lone Tree Ridge on the opposite hillside from the houses. The water travels through 3000 feet of above-ground water line down and then up steep hillsides to a ten-thousand-gallon concrete tank, and from there to the two houses on the property. Animals sometimes chew through the line, or it breaks from heat or cold, and repairs are needed on an almost daily basis. There are miles of livestock fencing both old and new which require endless maintenance work as well. I have a ranch truck that I use for accessing 4x4 locations on the property. Around 2014 I bought a broken 1984 E-Z-GO golf cart for $300. I got it running and started using it for property work instead of the truck. What a godsend! Jumping into a small utility cart with some fencing or a chainsaw to get to a work site was about 10 times faster than using a 4x4 truck. I could work far more quickly and efficiently all over the property, and with far less impact on the land than using all the gas to power the 5000 pounds of 4x4 truck. A win-win for me, for property maintenance, and for the AVLT, you would think?
Not according to the current board members of the Anderson Valley Land Trust. Their lawsuit states that "golf carts and other vehicles are being used for recreation" on the property. Say what now? (Also, it seems important to note that I have one, singular, utility vehicle “golf cart”, and not the plural “carts” that their lawsuit claims.)
Moreover, our easement says vehicles are not to be driven off-road recreationally, so I don't, as that would seem to pretty clearly violate our easement. I bought it to use for work, and that’s what I use it for. The lawsuit doesn't say what "other vehicles" they're talking about. Maybe they think I'm driving my truck around for fun? Maybe the sight of a golf ball being hit on a Facebook page caused a lawsuit? Maybe they're referring to a motor-home that was parked on the property at one point by my aunt and uncle’s grandson for camping, but which we removed in 2016 because the AVLT claimed it violated the easement, even though camping is completely permitted and unrestricted. The lawsuit fails to mention what type of “recreation” any of these vehicles are being used for. Are they claiming the golf cart is used for golf? It doesn’t say. All I have to go on is the vague legal language of the suit. I have asked them for further details, but received no clarification until more recently in the course of the trial. Maybe if they had explained their thinking to me, I could have avoided whatever use of the golf cart that got me sued. Maybe not.
The AVLT could have just come to me directly and asked me to only use the cart for property maintenance. I would have instantly agreed, since that is its only function. But to file a lawsuit against me, without any prior discussion, for using a golf cart to work on my property and for a Facebook page, feels an awful lot like harassment litigation.
By claiming that maintenance work violates our agreement, and refusing to communicate, and forcing us to pay a great deal of money to defend ourselves against this lawsuit, the AVLT is effectively shutting down the use and enjoyment of our property. Why are we being singled out? I'm hoping that someone reading this has more insight into that answer than I do.
And “singled out” is an accurate description. AVLT board members Barbara Goodell and Steve Snyder both have easements on their properties. While easements are different for every property, I have read their easements, and they are 90% identically worded to ours, although much more restrictive than ours. Both Barbara and Steve have had current situations identical to what the AVLT has falsely sued us for. It is exceedingly strange that the AVLT filed a lawsuit against us, when we have not actually violated our easement, while allowing real violations to occur under easements of their own board members.
(To Be Continued…)