“Brilliant and funny” is a common summing up of Steve Butler, for decades one of Sonoma County’s premier land-use lawyers – and a golfer, Giants fan and practical joker widely regarded as a kick to be with.
Butler was Sonoma County’s top staff attorney in the realm of zoning and development before he switched to private practice and the Santa Rosa law firm of Clement, Fitzpatrick & Kenworthy. There, he represented builders, wineries, ranchers and others who sought government approval for development projects.
Butler died Jan. 26 from complications of injuries that showed themselves after he fell while walking his dog. He was 70.
“He was smart as a whip, and he loved to laugh,” said friend and golf buddy Mick Menendez.
Declared Erin Carlstrom, a fellow Clement firm lawyer who’s been assuming Butler’s duties as he eased into retirement, “There are not a lot of attorneys like Steve.” Carlstrom termed his colleague and mentor “singularly brilliant,” adding that he was a delight to work with and someone with an unparalleled, lawyerly master of Sonoma County land-use history, practices and regulations.
Longtime friend Tim Smith, the former Sonoma County supervisor, said that among Butler’s attributes, “He was as honest as they came. He had a terrific sense of humor.”
“It’s such a loss,” Smith said. He added that Butler was one of those friends “you can’t imagine not having anymore.”
Butler, who grew up in Southern California and came to Santa Rosa in the 1980s, worked hard and played hard.
“When he came home, he didn’t want to talk about work,” said his wife, Renée Gerrans.
In his free time, she said, her husband loved playing golf, following the San Francisco Giants, traveling and watching TV shows about ghost encounters, monster fish and such that he knew were phony but didn’t care.
The land-use attorney and Gerrans, a flight attendant, met 15 years ago at the Washoe House, the historic roadhouse between Cotati and Petaluma.
“I was on my way home from Marin and stopped there for a beer, and he was there,” Gerran recalled. The two of them struck up a conversation, hit it off and before leaving exchanged phone numbers.
“He was funny and he was smart,” Gerrans said. “And those are the two things I look for most.”
She said she hadn’t gotten far from the Washoe House when her cellphone rang. It was Butler.
“He called me to say he forgot to pay the bill. I forgot, too. I guess we were so engaged, we forgot.”
Butler told her he had turned around to return to the Washoe House to pay the tab. “I thought that was so charming,” Gerrans said.
She and Butler married in Reno on Nov. 11, 2011. Gerrans became close to Nick Butler, her husband’s son from his first marriage, to teacher Ann Butler.
Among Steve Butler’s away-from-lawyering passions was backpacking.
“He just loved nature,” said his brother, Michael Butler of Redlands. “He hiked like a mountain goat; I couldn’t keep up with him.”
The Santa Rosa lawyer also relished the art of the practical joke.
Menendez remembers when he and Butler and others, which than included pal Ross Liscum, had finished a round of golf and stopped into a restroom before heading for the bar.
Liscum didn’t notice when Butler slipped up behind him with a partial role of toilet paper in his hand and slipped the end of the roll beneath Liscum’s belt.
Liscum then walked through the clubhouse, unaware of his toilet-paper trailer and wondering what his friends and any number of lookers found so funny.
Another time, Butler slipped into the hotel room of two golf buddies and turned up the thermostat as high as it would go. Each roommate assumed the other wanted the room hot, so both of them sweltered all night without saying anything.
“We all had a great time,” said Liscum, part of the foursome that included Butler and that for years played golf every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning at Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club.
“Steve was a barrel of laughs, witty, charming, eccentric,” Liscum said. “He could make you laugh at the drop of a hat.”
Steven K. Butler was born Oct. 28, 1952, in the San Bernardino County college town of Redlands.
As a kid, “he was a baseball player, a pitcher,” said Michael Butler. “He was a little overachiever, academically.”
Michael Butler said his brother consistently ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in school.
Upon graduation from high school, Steve Butler was accepted into the University of California, Davis. He graduated Phi Betta Kappa, then entered law school at the University of California, San Francisco.
He passed the state bar exam in 1977 and went to work for a law firm in Redlands. He switched after a few years to a San Bernardino firm, and after a few more moved north to join the offices of the Sonoma County Counsel in 1982.
He worked there through the 1980s, specializing in land-use and the county’s general plan and rising to the position of chief deputy county counsel, then assistant county counsel. He left the county staff in 1992 to join Clement, Fitzpatrick & Kenworthy, becoming a partner.
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbit said Butler’s legal argument was widely recognized and respected. Rabbit said that when the attorney lobbied on behalf of a client’s development proposal, “he did it in a way that was so respectful.”
“I never dreaded Steve coming to my office to talk about a project,” Rabbit said.
Butler’s wife said that on New Year’s Eve, the two of them had a couple of friends over for dinner. At one point in the evening, Butler needed to walk Louie, his and Gerrans’ French bulldog. They were gone longer than usual.
When Butler returned with his dog, his knees were bloodied. He told his wife and guests he’d fallen on the walk.
Gerrans helped him tend to his scraped knees.
Several days later, Butler was bothered by pain in his back. A large hematoma, a bruise caused by pooling blood, had appeared.
A trip to the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center revealed that Butler’s blood pressure had fallen dramatically, and it was caused by internal bleeding. He died from complications of the condition caused or aggravated by the fall.
His son, Nick Butler, said that up to the end his father was joking and jousting playfully with the people on his Kaiser care team.
“He could always find the joy or the upside of a situation,” he said.
Butler is survived by his wife and son in Santa Rosa, and his brother in Redlands.
Gerrans said details of a celebration of her husband’s life will be announced once they are set.
Chris Smith is a retired Press Democrat reporter and columnist. You can contact him at [email protected].
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