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Landowner bulldozes into trouble
County OK'd west county clearing, but state, feds object

January 16, 2003


Sebastopol property owner John Tomich had the support of Sonoma County officials when he cleared 200 to 250 feet of trees and shrubs next to Atascadero Creek.

Since then, at least three state and federal agencies have descended on the site and warned Tomich that he faces fines, possible criminal prosecution and an order to restore the riparian corridor, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Tomich, 43, said the response took him by surprise. But it points to an apparent gap in how the county treats agricultural land and environmental protection.

"I didn't have any idea what I was getting into," Tomich said. "I thought I was just putting in a fence."

He's not the first small landowner to learn that county approval is not the same as a green light to proceed, several agency spokespeople said.

The county alerts landowners about the interests of environmental agencies as part of the permit process. But when no permit is required, as was the case with Tomich, there is no notification.

It's one of the reasons the county is looking at enacting a grading ordinance and improving protection for riparian corridors in the current General Plan update, said Supervisor Mike Reilly, whose district includes Atascadero Creek.

The project might have been prevented if those ordinances were in place because Tomich might have had to obtain a permit to clear his land and would have learned about the other agencies' requirements, Reilly and several agencies said.

"The whole point is that the county didn't see anything wrong with it," Reilly said. "We have these black environmental holes in our county permitting system that have to be fixed."

The general plan is the county blueprint for growth for the next 20 years.

Tomich, 43, said he and his wife moved to Sebastopol from Fremont four years ago in search of good schools for their two daughters and the beauty and peace of country life.

The family has brought in horses and other animals and wanted to introduce a small flock of Barbados sheep. But that required building a fence, Tomich said.

He phoned county officials, described what he wanted to do and was told he didn't need a permit.

He attempted to clear trees and brush from the fence line himself, but eventually hired an excavator operator to complete the job, Tomich said.

The excavator removed the trees and shrubs along the fence line and, on his own initiative, cleared along the power line as well, Tomich said.

The work was clearly visible from Mill Station Road, and neighbors and environmentalists began calling regulatory agencies.

"It was heartbreaking," said Chris Stover, who lives near Tomich. "Everything was slashed away. Trees had been snapped off and stacked in 15-foot-high piles. The way it was done, it looked like someone had gone on a rampage of destruction."

County code enforcement inspectors visited the site after receiving complaints, but said the work had not violated any county ordinances.

"We found no violation of our county codes," said Nancy Lingafeldt, supervisor of code enforcement. "The property owner has a right to remove shrubs and trees along that area of the creek."

Not so, say the other agencies, who say Tomich should have contacted them and gotten permits or agreements before he began. These are the agencies asserting authority:

The state regional Water Quality Control Board found that Tomich had filled in a secondary channel of Atascadero Creek and several small wetlands, protected by state law because of their unique habitat.

The agency has told Tomich to stop all work on the property, hire an ecologist to prepare a restoration plan and submit a completed restoration plan by March 31.

"There will certainly be some restoration and there could be a fine. He may have to obtain after-the-fact permits to fill wetlands," said John Short, a senior engineer with the water quality board.

State Fish and Game Department investigators said the excavator went into and altered a secondary channel of Atascadero Creek, as well as destroying a forested area that provided valuable wildlife habitat.

The department may seek criminal prosecution as well as restoration, said biologist Bill Cox.

"It was a substantial wildlife area with dense woodland and a riparian corridor," Cox said. "We've pretty well decided we will make a referral to the District Attorney's Office."

The Army Corps of Engineers said Tomich also violated federal laws protecting wetlands.

Despite the damage, the agencies credit Tomich for his willingness to cooperate with them in restoring the area.

"He's been very cooperative and seems willing to work with our agency and the water quality control board to resolve the issues," said Katerina Galacatos, project manager for the Corps of Engineers.

The agencies are also taking steps to be sure Tomich's restoration work doesn't get him into more trouble.

"The agencies are working together to come up with a plan so he doesn't try to fix one thing for one agency and then get in trouble with another agency," Galacatos said.

You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or

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