By GABE FRIEDMAN Napa Register Staff Writer
A jury acquitted the father of a prominent local environmentalist Thursday of charges that he graded a steep Angwin hillside without an erosion control plan.
William Dalmolin, 75, of Windsor, was acquitted on all four charges of grading without an erosion control plan after a jury deliberated for roughly two hours. Dalmolin, the father of Napa environmentalist Chris Malan, was charged with violating the county's Hillside Ordinance by grading a road on hillside property near the hairpin curve on Deer Park Road in 2002. A fifth charge of grading property with high slopes was dismissed before it got to the jury.
"I'm very happy," Dalmolin said. "If I had to go to jail like the DA wanted, it would have been a life or a death sentence -- I have health problems ... But the jury got in their way."
He said that he would move forward with his plans to build a house on the property.
Malan, whose name was bandied about in court papers and during the trial, said, "I'm very relieved and very thankful, it was extremely stressful. I feel that this is all to get back at me and the work I do in the environment."
Malan's efforts with the Sierra Club helped spur the county to enact the law that her father was charged with violating.
The defense and prosecution drew on conflicting testimony to build their cases.
Deputy District Attorney Rich Zimmerman presented Dalmolin's actions as a straightforward case of an individual ignoring the need for permits when carving a road on a steep hillside, despite county officials' advice to the contrary.
Defense attorney Michael Miller argued that Dalmolin diligently followed instructions, only to be jerked around by county officials because of his relationship to Malan.
At the heart of the conflict is whether Naomi Beattie, a planning technician, had given Dalmolin "clearance" to carve the road. She testified that she did not, while Dalmolin testified that she gave him verbal clearance.
Miller argued that Beattie was a young, recent college graduate with only four months experience at her job who may have been confused by the stipulations of county regulations. "She has no incentive to say she made a mistake ... I think we've all been there," he said at closing argument.
Miller said Dalmolin had "done nothing but try and comply."
In attempts to persuade jurors that county officials were driven to discriminate against Dalmolin, Miller referenced e-mails from Ed Colby, the planner who forwarded the case to the DA's office for prosecution. The e-mails contained references to Malan, who was not alleged to have any direct involvement in her father's activities.
He also used testimony from Mark Pollack, Dalmolin's former attorney, who helped belatedly submit erosion control plan to the county planning department.
Pollack said that Steve Lederer, a deputy planning director, refused to handle the erosion control plan.
"(Lederer) said it was 'a hot potato,'" said Pollack, "and I said, 'What do you mean?' He said 'Chris Malan.'"
Pollack, whom Miller called as an expert witness on planning department regulations, also testified that he had not heard of the technical reasons that planning officials used to reject Dalmolin's erosion control plan.
Miller told him that planning department officials were of "a state of mind to set him up and have this case blow up on him."
Miller said outside the courtroom that he thought the case might be the first criminal case brought under the Hillside Ordinance. But District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said later that the county has brought at least three such cases previously, two against vineyard owners and one against a contractor.
In his closing argument, Zimmerman countered Miller's arguments by describing the case as citizen-driven; a neighbor originally reported the grading.
"This actually is a very simple case," Zimmerman told jurors. "It's a very simple issue of grading and earthmoving in an erosion-prone area."
The fact that Dalmolin did not cause significant erosion is irrelevant, Zimmerman told the jury.
"We've had significant problems in the hills," Zimmerman said. "The big issue here is not was there harm, was there damage to the land. The issue is did someone jump the queue?"