State

Stanislaus Iris farm lawsuit trial set for 2011

A big misunderstanding that led to the 2008 demise of a flower bulb farm is winding through federal court.

Gordon and Lorraine Nicholson had operated Woodland Iris Gardens for 10 years, welcoming busloads of seniors, school children, garden clubs and visitors from around the world.

But they never got a special use permit for retail sales, a small portion of their seven-acre business on Milnes Road, east of Modesto.

They previously operated a similar farm for five years west of town.

A Stanislaus County code enforcement officer, acting on an anonymous tip, sent them an abatement order demanding that they "immediately cease and desist their farming operations," including removing a sign, shutting down a Web site and discontinuing tours.

The Nicholsons obeyed. They lost their clients, income and about $100,000 worth of iris stock, court papers read.

But nearly six months later, they received a notice that the county "determined your property had no county code violations and we will be closing our file," according to court documents.

The Nicholsons sued, claiming that the erroneous notice "amounted to a taking and damaging of real property" and that any community goodwill had been destroyed. They seek $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, and a trial date is scheduled for July 2011 in federal court in Fresno.

Their Turlock attorney refused Wednesday to discuss the case.

County Counsel John Doering said, "The county doesn't feel we did anything wrong, while plaintiffs thought we did." He said the sides have tried mediation and are likely to give it another go.

The county claims that the Nicholsons "failed to exhaust available procedures" and effectively "waived and abandoned their due process rights by failing to contest the county's notice," according to court documents.

The Nicholsons contend that they did what the county ordered. Also, calling their farm "a nuisance is so unreasonable from a legal standpoint as to be arbitrary and not in furtherance of any legitimate government objective," court papers read.

County supervisors were briefed behind closed doors Tuesday and afterward reported taking no action.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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