No agreement was reached between George Loftus, owner of SunSmile Farms, and the Nevada Irrigation District at Wednesday’s board of directors meeting, but both parties expressed hope that a settlement can be reached before the matter goes to court.
Loftus — flanked by a large contingent of supporters — spoke passionately about the damage done to his organic farm as a result of NID’s decision to shut off water in September 2011.
“The damage done to my farm will take at least five years to repair, no matter what you feel is fair compensation,” Loftus said in comments directed to the five-person board of directors. “Two years have already passed plus the five years to bring the trees and berries to full production. I’m an orchardist — so that’s a 25- to 30-year commitment. A life’s plan broken by a malicious act.”
The act Loftus is referring to dates back to 2011, when the Nevada County Department of Public Works asked NID to turn off water running through a 12-inch pipe that traversed under Rough and Ready Highway.
NID complied with the order in September, right at the time when Loftus needed the irrigated water to prepare trees for the following year and finish off the late-season crops on his 70-acre farm, which soaks up more than 55 million gallons of water annually.
Loftus said he asked NID to repair the pipe immediately and even offered to pay for the fix, which NID later admitted cost $2,000.
“My offer … was to have NID do the pipe repair at my expense and take the matter of pipe ownership up later,” Loftus said. “I told them it was an emergency. They refused to help me.”
Initially, NID claimed Loftus owned the pipe and was responsible for repairs to the pipe, although Director Nick Wilcox said NID has since acknowledged it was the water agency’s responsibility.
Wilcox, who toured Loftus’ farm last year, said the damage to the orchard was visible and significant, and the agency would like to come to a reasonable settlement with Loftus.
Director Scott Miller said the first time the board heard about the matter was last fall and they encouraged Loftus to file a claim.
After Loftus hired a “forensic accountant,” he filed a claim in January, which the board termed “untimely.”
Nevertheless, the board sent an insurance company representative to assess the damage at Loftus’ farm and come up with a counteroffer.
Wilcox said he hopes to hear an estimate from the insurance company soon to be able to give both parties ample time to negotiate a proper settlement.
If a settlement is not reached by July 23, Loftus vowed to file a lawsuit.
“I want to leave communications open and resolve this matter,” he said. “I don’t believe going to court is a solution, although I am prepared,” he said.
A show of support
It was standing room only at NID headquarters Wednesday morning.
About 30 people filled the board of directors chambers and about a dozen people spoke, all of whom gave support to Loftus and urged the board to expedite their efforts to supply the farmer with just compensation.
Supervisor Terry Lamphier, who represents Loftus on the Nevada County board of supervisors, spoke on the organic farmer’s behalf, saying farms such as SunSmile were critical to a vibrant and healthy local economy.
“I strongly urge you to assist SunSmile Farms in any way within your powers and as soon as possible so that they may continue to be the kind of business our community needs and values,” Lamphier said during public comment.
Mike Pasner, owner of Indian Springs Organic Farm, said despite being in direct competition with Loftus and not seeing eye-to-eye with him over the years, he wanted to voice support.
“It was a two-day fix,” he said. “Why didn’t it happen immediately? I am here to protect the interests of agriculture and to urge NID to do right by George Loftus and his farm.”
Loftus said it says a lot that someone with whom he does not get along shows up.
“I am really grateful,” Loftus said. “This is such an awesome community.”
Following public comment, the board was advised by legal counsel to refrain from commenting on the SunSmile issue given the potential for pending litigation.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.