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History of the Open Space Conservation Easement Issue

A Key Issue

One of CARRQ's biggest issues with the County's approval of the Roblar Rd. quarry is the entanglement of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (SCAPOSD) with the quarry developer to enable him to build the quarry.   The Directors of the SCAPOSD and the County Board of Supervisors are the same people.  The history follows:

$2.3 Million in Taxpayers' Money for Roblar Conservation Easement Next to Planned Quarry Site

Elmer and Anna Scott owned the Roblar Ranch prior to its purchase by John Barella.  The Scott's land consisted of three parcels totaling 955.59 acres and including five development rights.  The property was under a Williamson Act contract.  The Scott's contacted the SCAPOSD about putting some of their land under a conservation easement.  SCAPOSD had the property appraised in 2001  and the it appraised for $4,300,000 "as is". The proposed conservation easement would be on 767.85 acres and remove three development rights for preservation.   The Scott's excluded 187.74 acres from the conservation easement proposal.  It was noted that 60 acres of the 187 acres was included in the county Aggregate Resource Mining (ARM) plan and might be developed into a quarry in the future. SCAPOSD offered Elmer and Anna Scott $1,600,000 in May 2001 for the conservation easement.  Unfortunately, Mr. Scott passed away and his family did not pursue the conservation easement.

Six months later,  in Nov, 2001, John Barella purchased the entire 955.59 acre Roblar Ranch from Mr. Scott's heirs for $5,300,000.  He did a lot split on the property resulting in six deveolpment rights. He applied for a conservation easement from SCAPOSD who had the land appraised in Oct. 2003.  Two year's after the Scott's appraisal, the land was appraised at $5,445,00 "as is"; more than $1 million higher than the earlier appraisal.  The conservation easement removed three of the six development rights and totaled 758 acres. One hundred ninety-eight acres of the property was excluded from the conservation easement. The appraiser noted that an application for a hard rock quarry on the excluded 198 acres had already been filed by Barella. There was also an environmental site assessment that noted the "adjacent landfill did have some potential hazardous chemical releases". The potential affect of the landfill site on the subject property was inconclusive due to the limited data available - specifically "because the data are limited and derived from a monitoring system that is not capable of evaluating deep groundwater conditions or the groundwater beneath the site."

The conservation easement portion of the property appraised for $2,670,000. SCAPOSD offered John Barella $2,269,000 in Feb. 2004. He accepted and was paid $2,273,128 in May 2004 from tax-paid funds.  The purpose of the conservation easement was to preserve the property's agricultural, scenic and natural resource values "in perpetuity."  The County clearly knew a hard rock gravel mine was planned on a portion of the Roblar Ranch before the conservation easement was approved.  Taxpayers paid to conserve pristine land immediately adjacent to a rock quarry!

Barella Sells Conservation Easement Property to Neighboring Ranchers

In June 2004 John Barella divided the property encumbered by the conservation easement and sold it to neighboring ranchers, both of whom still hold title. The western 388.8 acre parcel is owned by Ken and Clairette Wilson and the eastern 368.9 acre parcel is owned by Joe and Kathy Tresch.  Both properties are used for cattle grazing.   An important note is that one conservation easement (called the Ranch Easement) extends across the two properties owned by the Wilson's and the Tresches. 

The  money John Barella received from SCAPOSD for the conservation easement and subsequent sale of it to his neighbors is expected to be a big help in developing the quarry.

County and Developer Use Open Space Protected Land for Developer's Benefit

Public Outcry Stops Alternate Haul Route Across Conservation Easement

The Project Description in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) originally called for thousands of gravel trucks to travel east and west on Roblar Road between Stony Point Road and Valley Ford Road, along the Americano Creek and through a seasonal wetland every year for 20 years.  Due to public objection to 200-400 gravel trucks per day that would impact residents along Roblar Road and students at Dunham School, the County changed the  Project Description to  include an "alternate haul route" they said was "environmentally superior" to the orignial plan in which all trucks would avoid the eastern portion of Roblar Road (between Stony Point Road and the quarry entrance) travel west of the quarry property, but bypass the portion of Roblar Road that runs adjacent to Americano Creek that empties into the Estero Americano, a federally-protected waterway.  

In late 2007 John Barella's lawyer wrote a letter to the County Planning Dept. and to the SCAPOSD proposing that he be allowed to use 3.3 acres of the land under the conservation easement to build an "alternate haul route" across the acreage now owned by the Wilson’s. Sending the truck traffic across the conserved land would have saved Barella significant amounts of money by not having to improve Roblar Road to handle the truck traffic, as well as saving him from having to deal with potential impacts to Americano Creek. In exchange for releasing the five acres for the access road John Barella said he would put a conservation easement without compensation on his 200 acres (including the quarry) after he was done using the land for a gravel mine. While he would not receive compensation for the Open Space Easement on the quarry property he would have been able to take a charitable contribution for the gift. Sounds like it would have been quite a deal for John Barella!

"Interpreting" the Conservation Easement to Allow Mitigation for Tiger Salamanders

The developer's biologist found evidence of endangered California tiger salamanders (CTS) and California red-legged frogs(CRLF)  on the quarry site in the spring of 2010.  Because the quarry operation will kill the salamanders and frogs, Barella is required to ‘mitigate’ their destruction by creating a CTS and CLRF preserve on his own land or other land.  Habitat mitigation must be done according to exacting standards issued by the California Dept. of Fish and Game and/or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and usually costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. 

Although he no longer owned the Roblar Ranch property now under the Ranch Easement, John Barella convinced his neighbor Ken Wilson who owns one of the parcels under the easement, to join him in asking for an amendment to the Ranch Easement to allow for the establishment of a 105-acre CTS and CRLF preserve on the Wilson property.  The Tresch family owns the other parcel under the Ranch Easement, but they were not consulted in advance of the request and they objected to it.  After evaluating the request, the staff of the SCAPOSD determined that the establishment of an off-site mitigation preserve on the Wilson property is inconsistent with two or more provisions of the Ranch Easement. The District’s General Manager, Bill Keene, stated that a preserve on the Wilson property could not be allowed without the consent of both the Wilson’s and the Tresches, and that such an amendment would diminish the protected agricultural value of the Wilson property.

If You Can’t Amend the Easement, Why Not “Reconfigure” It?

To avoid the messiness of amending the Ranch Easement that would not be allowed under the District’s own policy but would give Barella what he wanted, General Manager Keene recommended a plan to the SCAPOSD Directors (same as the Board of Supervisors) to “reconfigure” the easement instead!  This plan would reconfigure the Preserve area to include only riparian areas and existing oak woodland tree canopy, a stock pond and some upland grasslands, supposedly to minimize impacts to Wilson’s use of his land for grazing.   The Tresch Family who owns the other parcel of land under the Ranch Easement still did not agree to this reconfiguration.

CARRQ maintains this approval allows the developer to avoid significant mitigation costs in the realm of $5 to $15 million by using public land for private, commercial profit. Please view the following articles, one by Huey Johnson, a nationally recognized open space expert "Open Space Guest Opinion" and another by a local ranching family with open space protected land "Habitat Proposal", to see first-hand the wide base of opposition that exists to the County's vote.

SCAPOSD’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) Opposes Reconfiguration--Stands Firm for Development of Mitigation Policy

For the past two years the SCAPOSD's CAC has consistently opposed use of a conservation easement to benefit the quarry developer.  They oppose any action that would compromise the integrity of tax-paid conservation easements or erode the public's trust in the SCAPOSD to use taxpayer funds appropriately.   In 2012 the SCAPOSD staff and CAC are working to develop a mitigation policy for conservation easements and lands owned by the SCAPOSD directly (called fee lands) so another Roblar Road quarry situation does not occur.  CAC Chairwoman said to District staff at the April 26, 2012 meeting, "We never want to see a Roblar quarry type decision made again" on a public conservation easement that benefited a private developer

For more informaiton:

Supervisors / Open Space District Directors Deny Alternate Haul Route, Approve Quarry

Pushed the Vote Through Before Kerns and Kelley Retired

CARRQ and hundreds of people around Sonoma County openly protested the misuse of the tax-paid Open Space land to benefit Barella by allowing him  build a road across the conservation easement.  A unanimous vote would have been required by the Board of Supervisors/Open Space District Directors (the same people) to amend the conservation easement to allow it—the Board didn’t have the 5 votes to pass it. On Oct. 19, 2010, the BOS denied the alternate haul route across the conserved land, but in a 3-2 straw vote,  agreed to the CTS/CLRF preserve and the quarry project. 

Pro-quarry supervisors Kerns and Kelley were set to retire at the end of December 2010, so the Board ensured the vote on the quarry was taken before Barella lost their support.  On Dec. 14, 2010, the BOS/District Directors certified the quarry project’s Environmental Impact Report and the controversial move to allow required mitigation for CTS and CRLF on land already protected and preserved by the Open Space District by “interpreting” the existing conservation easement.  Voting for the quarry project were Supervisors Kerns, Kelley and Valerie Brown.  Voting “no” were Supervisors Carrillo and Zane.

CARRQ maintains this approval for the CTS/CLRF habitat mitigation allows the developer to avoid significant costs in the realm of $5 to $15 million by using public land for private, commercial profit.

In January, 2011 CARRQ filed suit in Sonoma County Superior Court challenging the quarry project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  CARRQ and local ranchers Joe and Kathy Tresch and Ken and Nancy Mazzetta filed suit against the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (SCAPOSD) challenging the reinterpretation of a conservation easement. See the page on Legal Isesus for details regarding these court actions.

Taxpayers

In November 1990, Sonoma County voters approved Measures A and C.  The formation of the SCAPOSD was the result of the public’s concern over the urbanization and the displacement of agricultural land and open space in Sonoma County.  The purpose of Measure A was to establish the District while Measure C called for a ¼ percent sales tax over a 20-year period to fund agricultural preservation and open space acquisition.  The Sonoma County Open Space Authority (“Authority”), an independent entity created by the Board of Supervisors, is responsible for levying sales tax.  Through a contract, the Authority provides primary funding for the District’s acquisition program.  Upon its approval, sales tax provided an annual allocation of approximately $13 million for the District’s land acquisition program (see update). The District has no power of eminent domain.  The District can only purchase interest in real property from willing sellers.  The principal focus of the program is to acquire conservation easements, but the District may acquire fee rights in property where the project is in conformity with the Expenditure Plan.  The District also holds open space easements deeded through the County’s development approval process.

Source: Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District Acquisition Plan 

Farmers and Ranchers

The Roblar area is home to several large dairies and ranches.  The County completely ignored the economic value of these businesses in their desire to allow the Roblar quarry to go forward.  Many of these ranchers have SCAPOSD conservation easements on their land to save the land from development "in perpetuity."  Many of these ranchers felt threatened by the County's actions cow-towing to John Barella by "interpreting" the SCAPOSD conservation easement on the Wilson property to allow Barella to mitgate for the destruction of endangered species on the neighboring quarry land.  In particular, the Tresch Family dairy that shares the Open Space easement with the Ken and Clairette Wilson that the Supervisors allowed to be used to mitigate against the destruction of endangered species that will be caused by the quarry's operation, will be significantly impacted.  Their property rights were not considered by the Supervisors and the SCAPOSD.

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