On July 3, the San Francisco law firm of Gross and Klein LPP filed suit against Barney Aldridge, owner of The Barlow, and three Barlow management companies on behalf of nine current and former Barlow tenants, for financial damages incurred by the flooding in late February.
The plaintiffs include Crooked Goat Brewing, Friedeman Wines, Two Dog Night Creamery, Community Market, Scout West County, Tamarind Clothing and its owner Andrea Kenner, The Nectary, Victorian Farmstead Meat Company and Fern Bar.
The lawsuit came a month and a half after the release of a city report by Sebastopol building official Glenn Schainblatt, which establishes a timeline for events and actions leading up to The Barlow flooding.
Both the lawsuit and the city report place the blame for the damage to tenant properties at The Barlow squarely on the shoulders of The Barlow management.
Long before this year’s flood, The Barlow management saw the financial risk posed by flood damage. Its leases contain a codicil releasing The Barlow from liability for tenant flood damage.
The Barlow’s 2016 Tenant Flood Preparedness Program reiterates this point:
“We remind you that Landlord has no liability to Tenant whatsoever for any damage or injury to persons or property, or to Tenant’s business, from any cause directly or indirectly related to flooding or the collateral effects of flooding. Landlord carries no flood insurance for Tenant’s benefit. Tenant is recommended to carry flood insurance to protect their personal property.”
City of Sebastopol Informational Report: Barlow Flood 2019
The city of Sebastopol released its report on the flooding of The Barlow on May 23. The ostensible point of the report is to examine the documents, plans and events leading up to the flooding, but its subtext, just as clearly, is to exculpate the city from any alleged fault or wrongdoing.
The report quotes from The Barlow’s Flood Emergency Operation Plan: “All flood development procedures and implementation are the responsibility of the property owner … all flood barriers, maintenance, testing, training, deployment, removal, management and associated cost are the responsibility of current ownership.”
Written by building department official and Flood Plain Manager Glenn Schainblatt, the report includes the following:
• a permit history of The Barlow
• background on The Barlow’s Flood Emergency Operation Plan (the mitigation document that allowed them to build in a flood zone in the first place)
• a historical look at flood events in Sebastopol, including the floods of 1986, 1995 and 2006
• a very brief history of the testing of The Barlow flood system before the February flood (An interesting note here, the system was “tested” in November 2018 by installing a full-height flood log barrier on one door. That report was turned in to the city on Nov. 5, but, according to the report, the city was still reviewing it at the time of the flooding in February.)
• a timeline of flood watches and warnings and email exchanges between The Barlow and the city during two storm events in February
In its conclusion, the report offers an analysis of how the best-laid plans of mice and men went awry in The Barlow in February’s flooding. The report’s conclusions were as follows:
1. On Wednesday, floodwaters had entered The Barlow site and continued rising. It is clear from the amount of property damage that flood mitigation measures outlined in The Barlow flood emergency plan had not been implemented. The emergency plan relied on The Barlow to start to preparations early and ensure enough personnel and equipment were available for deployment. It is unclear why Barlow delayed implementation, what is clear is that all the planning to ensure the emergency plan performed as anticipated was ignored. The Barlow management should have started preparations on Monday prior to the event to ensure everything was in place in case of severe flooding (i.e. making sure the flood log storage unit could be unlocked and the logs where in the proper order for installation).
2. Tenants the city spoke with had not received evacuation notification, and some only discovered their businesses were receiving floodwaters from their security cameras. Some of the businesses were still operating into Tuesday evening.
3. According to tenants, The Barlow project management team did not start deployment until late Tuesday evening (Editor’s note: roughly 12 hours after the NOAA Flood Warning that was supposed kick in an all-hands-on-deck response.) US 101 rentals did not deliver equipment until 5 p.m. which consisted of two standard forklifts and one forward reach forklift and did not include the required four trailer site lights. Tenants said that there was a delay in unlocking the Flood Log Storage space because the key could not be located. The labor force only included eight individuals along with The Barlow employees. (Editor’s note: This compares to the 50 workers working 12 hours in the initial test of the system in 2012.) Other workers were unable to travel to Sebastopol because of road closures. Businesses that were still occupied had the employees assist in installing barriers. Many of the flood mitigation measures were installed with floodwaters in the buildings.
4. The flood barriers were not installed by trained individuals and as a result the barriers were not installed correctly.
5. In conversation with Yolanda Lopez later that week, she described efforts by the long time Barlow staff to The Barlow PM to implement the flood barrier installation sooner. She was one of the principal developers of the original plan and was familiar with the proper implementation. Her request to come and assist was not accepted.
6. Peter Stanley, another principal of The Barlow plan, is listed as the Flood consultant to oversee the crew assembly. Mr. Stanley was not contacted by The Barlow property manager.
7. On Wednesday morning, the site was still open, a construction crew working at 6782 Sebastopol Ave. arrived in the early morning but were forced to leave as the floodwaters rose.
8. The storm stalled over Sonoma County and heavy rainfall caused the Russian River to rise faster than the slow inundation experienced in past flood events. The rapid rise of the Laguna de Santa Rosa was not anticipated by The Barlow Property Management Team which may have delayed their reaction. However, once the NOAA flood watch and evacuation orders were issued the flood operation should have been implemented.
The Barlow tenants lawsuit
The lawsuit filed on July 3 is, as would be expected, even more detailed and explicit in its condemnation of the failures of The Barlow management to protect its tenants.
The suit alleges negligence and breach of contract (in various forms) and seeks both compensatory and punitive damages.
Their argument, in brief, is that The Barlow lured tenants to rent in a flood prone area by touting the virtues of The Barlow Flood Emergency Operation Plan and then negligently failed to follow through on the stringent requirements in that plan.
As a side note, the suit continues, “Then, adding insult to injury, every year, Barlow defendants charged plaintiffs extra fees — above and beyond the high rents and for most percentages of sales paid by them — for the costs purportedly related to the cost of these flood protection measures.”
The suit makes the following claims:
• That The Barlow failed to take the necessary preparations to ensure that they could implement the flood plan. The suit argues that The Barlow failed to properly train and prepare employees to carry out the comprehensive list of flood protection obligations entailed in the Flood Plan; that The Barlow failed to ensure that they had sufficient staff resources and equipment available to implement the flood plans; and that The Barlow failed to properly maintain onsite equipment, such as sump pumps, drains, flood logs and more.
• That The Barlow failed to properly implement the Flood Plans during the February 2019 flood. The suit alleges that, despite numerous warnings, The Barlow failed to adequately warn tenants regarding imminent flood risks and that they did not initiate flood preparations in time. It also alleges that when The Barlow finally did begin implementing the flood plan, that it did so negligently.
• That as a result of these acts and omissions by The Barlow, plaintiffs suffered massive injuries from the flood.
• That The Barlow’s post flood conduct exacerbated plaintiff’s injuries by refusing to negotiate with tenants who retained outside legal counsel. It also suggested that Aldridge’s claim that the flood damage was an unavoidable consequence of an act of God and that The Barlow management had done all it could was false and damaged tenants’ future economic prospects.
At times, the lawsuit’s language does a remarkable job of capturing the chaos and pathos of that day.
“As a result of The Barlow Defendants scant preparation, Barlow Defendants property manager misplaced the key to a flood log storage area. Barlow defendants were then unable to remove flood logs prior to the flooding of the storage area under multiple feet of water, rendering those flood logs inaccessible. Moreover, even those that were accessible became wet, rendering useless the log labeling system that The Barlow defendants had negligently chosen — paper stickers that detached and floated away or became illegible.”
“As a result of The Barlow defendants’ failure to competently install flood logs or have sufficient human and other resources onsite to do so, tenants who were onsite were forced to transport and try to install any available flood logs themselves in an attempt to save businesses from the flood. The owner of one Plaintiff business, seven months pregnant and working in several feet of frigid water to install flood logs, had to seek medical attention as a result of her attempts to save her business from destruction. Other business owners enlisted friends of their high-school age children to do the work that The Barlow Defendants were obligated to do.”
Barlow owner Barney Aldridge looks forward rather than back
In an email, Aldridge declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying only, “I’m not involved in the lawsuit, and have no comment. It’s attorneys chasing insurance money — not what I do.”
“What I do do is manage The Barlow,” he said, “and it’s going better than ever. Because of the flood that hit the Russian River Valley and even Sebastopol, a few spaces opened up for us and allowed some strong new tenants, who were waiting for the opportunity to join us. (We were 100% leased). About 5% of our space became available as six of our 40 tenants decided they did not want to continue operating their businesses.”
Noting several new businesses that will be opening their doors in the Barlow this month, Aldridge said, “The Barlow is back better than ever.”