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Petaluma property cleanup complete


Sonoma County officials have completed an extensive cleanup of the Sampson family property outside Petaluma’s western border, work that transformed a once brambled, blighted and secretive site that for decades has been the off-limits roost for some of the region’s most notorious political fighters.

The work at the Liberty Road property was the result of a new legal approach that officials said will serve as a blueprint for other cleanups planned in rural Sonoma County. Workers began removing hundreds of tons of debris, dozens of vehicles, knots of foliage and other waste from the site last summer, backed by an ongoing court order that puts the owners on the hook for the abatement costs while giving the county a quick route to return to the property if needed.

The approach represents a shift from complaint-based code enforcement, and toward an active program to address conditions at multiple blighted properties alleged to serve as refuges for a transient population that has long drawn the ire of neighbors and the concern of law enforcement, said David Rabbitt, the county supervisor whose district includes the rural areas around Petaluma.

“Property rights are important things. But you are impacting your neighbors’ property rights as well,” said Rabbitt, who helped spearhead the program.

Now shifted into a “monitoring” mode, the county work cost approximately $160,000, said Tennis Wick, director of the Sonoma County Permit & Resource Management Department. The department coordinated the work, which also involved a spectrum of other county government agencies.

The family property has been on the radar of county officials and regional law enforcement for decades, since patriarch Howard Sampson began making headlines in the 1970s as the head of a far-right movement extremely critical of law enforcement and government called Posse Comitatus. Historic reports range from death threats on an Internal Revenue Service employee, massive raids on the property by federal agents and an investigation after the firebombing of former Petaluma mayor Helen Putnam’s car and workplace in 1977.

Family members also brought their agenda to the political arena over the years, with Tony Sampson and twin brother Floyd Sampson, Howard Sampson’s sons, running in races for Congress, supervisor, sheriff and other offices.

Hidden behind towering brambles and makeshift barriers, the Sampson property itself was reportedly considered by the Petaluma Police Department as something of a refuge for those wanted by law enforcement. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction in the area, has logged hundreds of calls connected to the property for allegations including weapon assaults, stolen vehicles, illegal drugs and probation violations.

The property also drew concern for environmental impacts stemming from the waste that the court order said had accumulated behind its boundary walls. Yet after the cleanup, the site now evokes much of the pastoral scenery shared elsewhere in Liberty Valley.

Area residents lauded the county for embarking on the cleanup, though Ray Peterson, a farmer and rural Petaluma resident whose neighborhood watch group includes the area of the Sampson Property, expressed frustration that the county’s current approach did not materialize sooner.

“I’m just glad the county got their act together,” he said.

Howard Sampson also founded a church called Fields of the Wood, which is the legal owner of the Liberty Road property and the entity named in the court order. A bill for $41,332 will be included in the April 2017 tax bill for Fields of the Wood LLC, representing validated cleanup costs to date, Wick said.

Tony Sampson, who currently lives at the property, said he is challenging the order to pay those funds in the California First District Court of Appeal. Acting as legal representative for the church, he asserted that the order amounted to retribution following an alleged attack on a county building inspector near the property in 2015.

He said voluntary relations between himself and the county had been improving before the order, and described the county’s legal approach on the cleanup in broad terms as an attack on constitutional rights.

Sampson did not comment on plans for reimbursing the county’s costs if the appeal were to fail. If unpaid, the lien could ultimately compel a sale of the property.

“I know there’s people in the community hopeful to see us pay a large bill in the cleanup. But there are rights involved here,” he said.

Wick declined to comment on methods of enforcement, including deadlines that might prompt the property’s sale. County officials also declined to comment on other properties pegged for similar cleanups, citing the ongoing legal process to secure that work.

Yet Supervisor Rabbitt said the cleanups would ultimately establish an ongoing enforcement mechanism for sites that have long been a concern for the county at large.

“In this particular case, we were looking for a long-term solution. We think this is it, but we have to be diligent,” he said.