Santa Barbara County appeals lawsuit against farm family


Issue Date: April 6, 2005
Christine Souza

Peter Adam and his family took on Santa Barbara County in a precedent-setting case.

For the past six years, Adam Bros. Farming in the Santa Maria Valley has been in litigation with Santa Barbara County over the family's right to farm, after the county declared some of its acreage an environmentally sensitive wetland.

The County of Santa Barbara, in recent months, appealed the $6.7 million ruling that stemmed from a jury's decision that the wetland delineation by the county's Planning and Development Department was fraudulent and violated the civil rights of Adam Bros. Farming.

"Regarding their statement that they are filing an appeal, my position on that is that dog won't hunt," said Richard Brenneman of the law firm Chern and Brenneman of Santa Maria, who is serving as the lead attorney for Adam Bros. Farming. "We put on a very strong case and the county simply can't rebut the evidence. Aside from the fraudulent wetland delineation, the county itself was liable for failure to train and failure to monitor the actions of its employees. They aren't complying with the law and from what I have seen, this is happening all too frequently throughout the state of California."

In business for the past 40 years, Adam Bros. Farming is one of the Central Coast's premier grower/packer/shippers. Adam Bros. specializes in celery, broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower and bell peppers.

Following a three-week trial in Superior Court in Santa Maria last year, a Santa Barbara County jury reached a verdict in the case of Adam Bros. Farming Inc. v. The County of Santa Barbara, et al.

The jury determined that the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department and some of its personnel, intentionally prepared and approved a fraudulent wetland delineation for 95 acres; this delineation ultimately prevented the plaintiffs from farming almost 250 acres of their land for the last six years. The jury also decided that the company's equal protection rights were violated after being singled out with the false wetland description.

The family was awarded $6.7 million in punitive and actual damages. The County of Santa Barbara's decision to file a notice of appeal, according to Brenneman, is one of several steps the county must complete to make an appeal a reality. Brenneman estimates that it will take about one year before there is a ruling.

David Pettit, the lead attorney for Santa Barbara County, said now that the notice of appeal has been filed, the court must prepare a formal record and each party must file briefs. Once oral arguments are heard, the court will make its decision.

"Based on the case and the legal position of the parties, yes (we believe there is a win here). The jury doesn't decide what law is to be applied and in our view there were a number of critical legal mistakes made in the course of the trial that are going to require reversal regardless of what the jury found," Pettit said.

Richard Adam Jr., a member of the Adam family and attorney with Chern and Brenneman, said it is the belief of the Adam Bros.' legal team that there were no legal mistakes made during the course of the trial.

"Not surprisingly, it is not uncommon for a losing party to allege a variety of errors on appeal, whether legitimate or not," he said.

In 1999, when the county made its wetland delineation, it contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and informed these agencies that the "wetlands" located on Adam's property were federally protected. Based on that information, a federal lawsuit was brought against Adam Bros. Farming and is ongoing.

Adam Bros. Farming is unable to farm almost 250 acres of productive farmland until the case with Santa Barbara County is settled. The land has sat idle for six years and will continue to sit pending the conclusion of the litigation.

While Santa Barbara County moves forward with its appeal, the Adam brothers will continue to do their best to be patient and continue farming on the remainder of their land.

"I think we need to just keep on doing what we are doing. That is how life is, we have got to keep on trudging through it. I saw a movie recently about Winston Churchill and one of his sayings was, "keep buggering on," and that is what we are going to do. We are going to keep on buggering on," said Peter Adam, who is a partner in Adam Bros. Farming with his family.

Brothers Peter, Dominic, and Kerry Adam, who operate the farm on a day-to-day basis, work as a team to create a successful agricultural business. Peter handles agricultural production, takes care of cattle, and does construction and ranch development. Dominic Adam oversees harvest for the farm, interfaces between harvest and sales and runs the shop and the cooler. Kerry Adam oversees finances for the operation.

Adam Bros. Farming maintains its own nursery and grows almost all of its own plant starts as well as operates its own cooler.

The four brothers, sons of life-long farmer Richard Adam Sr., have a deep connection to the Santa Maria Valley, with a rich history of family farmers that can be traced back five generations. The first Adam family member to settle in the Santa Maria Valley was William Laird Adam, who arrived in California from Scotland in 1869. He settled in the Santa Maria Valley and farmed wheat and beans, and raised some cattle. Now several generations later, the long line of Adams' has worked hard to create a 1,500-acre operation where they produce vegetables that are sold throughout the United States and exported to many countries around the globe.

Although the family is trying to make the best of the situation involving the litigation with Santa Barbara County, the experience has left them concerned about the future.

"It has been a difficult if not a surreal six years. This type of behavior, particularly by allegedly impartial and unbiased public servants, is intolerable in our society. The jury in this case understood this fact," Richard Adam Jr. said.

He and other family members hope the verdict changes the way governments and regulators interact with those they are regulating.

"Like everybody else, I want to be involved in an honest process and the verdict gives me hope that may indeed occur in the future," Richard Adam Jr. said.

Attorneys for Adam Bros. Farming say that the case sets a new precedent in California and elsewhere in the United States by holding planning and development department personnel and their hired consultants personally responsible if they violate the constitutional rights of citizens.

"This case is a notice for basically all planning and development personnel not only here in California, but across the nation, that by violating someone's constitutional rights in the use of their property wrongfully, you will be held liable," Brenneman said. "I would suspect that there are other planning and development departments in California and elsewhere that have to stop and say, ?Wait a minute, we better have the proper procedures in line or else the county itself or the staff itself can be found at fault,'" Brenneman said.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.