The state Department of Natural Resources sent the former Wisconsin Badgers standout and seven-time Pro Bowler a letter Wednesday accusing him of 11 violations. They range from building bridges and dams and enlarging a pond without permits to tearing down a barn without notice of intent and discharging manure into a wetland.
DNR officials want to meet with Thomas on Jan. 6 — after the regular season ends — to discuss the allegations. Some of the violations are punishable by fines of $10,000 for every day in violation, the letter says, but doesn't offer details on the number of days.
DNR spokesman Bob Manwell declined to comment on the violations.
Thomas plans to attend the January meeting if the Browns don't make the playoffs, he said after practice Friday. He said he bought the land about three years ago and hired a contractor to remove buildings on it.
Thomas said he didn't realize the process they had to go through with the DNR and was surprised to receive the violation letter. He thought the agency had decided to settle things by issuing after-the-fact permits, he said.
"I guess I'm a little surprised by how the process has gone because we're working together in a lock-step as a partnership with the same goals, trying to get the same outcomes, and so I guess I'm kind of surprised it's blown up into a big deal," he said.
The letter also accuses developer Patrick O'Connor and Darrick Luck, who runs a company called Old Wood New Use, LLC, of the same violations. Old Wood New Use demolishes old buildings and recycles any material from them that's still usable.
O'Connor told The Associated Press in an email Friday that he helped Thomas purchase the land in 2012. It was littered with old farm equipment and dilapidated buildings, O'Connor said. Thomas hired Luck in May to demolish the structures and Connor along with some friends cleaned up the trash.
An anonymous tipster mistakenly reported a manure spill they drained water from a manure storage basin, O'Connor said. Thomas subsequently obtained a manure structure closing permit from county officials, he said.
Thomas was waiting for the paperwork for retroactive permits when he got Wednesday's letter, O'Connor said.
"There is no issue here," he wrote. "The real story is Joe and his family should be receiving an award for cleaning up an environmental eyesore."
Luck declined comment to The Associated Press on Friday morning, but told the State Journal it was "crazy" for the DNR to demand notification prior to demolition.
Thomas was a 2006 consensus All-American and first-team All-Big Ten player at Wisconsin. He also became the first Badger to win the Outland Trophy, an award recognizing college football's top interior lineman.
The Browns selected Thomas in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. He's never missed a snap during his pro career and has twice been named the Walter Payton Man of the Year.
The environmental allegations came one day after local media selected Thomas as the Browns' player of the year.
Associated Press Sports Writer Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.