After attempting unsuccessfully to reach a financial settlement with Nevada Irrigation District, George Loftus, owner of SunSmile Farms, has filed suit against the water agency seeking a minimum of $800,000 in damages.
“I am very disappointed, especially because this could have been settled earlier,” Loftus said. “The initial offers were very conservative.”
Loftus’ legal representative filed the lawsuit in Nevada County Superior Court on July 23.
“As a direct consequence of the wrongful acts of defendants, (Loftus) has incurred and will continue to incur attorney fees and expenses … and, therefore, claims the reasonable amount of such fees and expenses to be … awarded,” the complaint reads.
Nick Wilcox, a member of NID’s board of directors, said he was aware of the lawsuit and looked forward to the possibility of a court-administered resolution to the nearly two-year dispute.
“I see the litigation as the opportunity to resolve (the issue),” Wilcox said. “The court provides a structure for mediation.”
The dispute dates back two years, when a breach appeared in a 12-inch water pipeline running underneath Rough and Ready Highway. In August 2011, the Nevada County Public Works Department told NID to turn off the water, as the leak was compromising the integrity of the 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 contacted NID officials multiple times, he said, in an effort to spur a quick fix to the pipe and have his much-needed water turned back on.
NID originally disputed ownership of the pipeline, asserting that Loftus bore the brunt of responsibility of repairing the leak.
After a meeting in May 2012, NID turned Loftus’ water back on, Wilcox said.
In the 16-page complaint filed last week, his lawyer argued former NID Water Superintendent Larry Markey, former NID General Manager Ron Nelson and NID Raw Water Superintendent Nathan Wasley did not simply neglect to perform repairs out of ignorance.
Instead, NID managers operated with full knowledge of the water agency’s ownership responsibility and deliberately sought to foist financial culpability on Loftus, the complaint states.
“Since 1978, NID has made repeated attempts to mislead and/or coerce (Loftus) and his predecessors in interest into assuming the cost of and direct responsibility for maintenance and repair of NID’s pipeline,” the complaint states.
Wilcox said NID would not respond to any allegations outside a courtroom.
“Once it becomes a court case, we must be circumspect,” he said.
Loftus also refrained from discussing specifics of the case but did say his farm continues to feel the residual damage of the incident.
“The longer this goes on, the further my farm goes under,” Loftus said. “It’s definitely hurt the farm.”
Located in Grass Valley, SunSmile Farms is the largest organic farm in western Nevada County, offering 45 types of organic produce along with bees and chickens. Lately, the farm has continued to sell peaches and other produce unaffected by the water shortage that destroyed many of the fruit trees on the property.
In late June, Loftus and several supporters showed up at NID headquarters to lobby the board to consider a quick settlement with Loftus before the damage to the farm was further compounded.
The board remained silent on the issue at the advice of legal counsel as the matter was not properly agendized, but did craft an open letter to the community in the wake of the meeting.
“We truly regret that resolution of the dispute has not been achieved,” the letter states. “NID stands by our agricultural community and expends a great deal of effort to protect and serve that community.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.