A man accused of illegally repairing a levee and damaging sensitive aquatic habitat in the Suisun Marsh is facing a $2.8 million fine following a California appeals court decision last month.
John Sweeney, who ran a kiteboarding club on Point Buckler Island in Solano County after buying it in 2011, must also abide by a cleanup and abatement order that requires him to restore the marshlands and tidal channels damaged during the levee work.
The 39-acre island in Grizzly Bay had previously been used by duck hunters and was surrounded by a levee that had fallen into disrepair, according to documents filed in California's First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Sweeney wanted to build the earthen berms back up in order to once again promote duck hunting on the island.
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Because the levee no longer held back the waters of Grizzly Bay, the island "had long reverted to a tidal marsh due to neglect, abandonment, or the forces of nature," so any work on the levee would have required authorization from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, according to a court filing.
Both agencies issued multiple violations for the levee work and subsequent environmental damage, including the Water Board's $2.8 million fine and BCDC's $752,000 fine, both issued in 2016.
Sweeney successfully challenged the agencies' actions in Solano County Superior Court.
In ruling on behalf of the agencies last month, however, state appeals court Justice Peter Siggins reversed that decision stating, in part, that the island is "critical habitat for Delta smelt and Chinook salmon, and the drainage and diking of the site risked reductions in food and precluded access to tidal channels for foraging."
Water Board officials said Siggins' ruling is a major victory for Suisun Marsh, the largest contiguous, brackish marsh on the west coast of North America, and could further strengthen wetlands protections across the state.
"This is an enforcement case with the most positive impact to wetlands we've seen in a long, long time, and it stems from the most egregious violation involving a wetland impact we've seen in decades," said Xavier Fernandez, planning division chief with the San Francisco Bay Water Board.
Larry Bazel, Sweeney's lawyer, said they plan to ask the California Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision.
"John Sweeney is being penalized because the previous owners of the duck club did not repair the levee quickly enough. After some unspecified time, according to the (Water Board), a duck club is no longer a duck club and the owner is prohibited from repairing the levee, even when (as in this case) the land has been a duck club since the 1920s," Bazel said in an email.
"Point Buckler Club is being penalized for no good reason at all, since it did not participate in the levee repair," Bazel said.
Neither Sweeney nor the club can afford the fines or the repair work ordered by the Water Board, he said.