Union Democrat staff

Preposterous, pie in the sky, far-fetched, unrealistic.

These are but a few of the adjectives that describe to Modesto developer Vince Estell's vision for the arid, toxic remains of a 1980s open-pit mining operation west of Jamestown.

These days, with temperatures nudging the century mark and shade in short supply, the 765-acre mine - close to 500 acres of which are owned by Tuolumne County - seems as unlikely site for one of Northern California's premiere tourist attractions.

Yet that's exactly what Estell hopes his proposed $250 million project

will become. Its centerpiece would be 65 acres of "themed gardens."

Patterned after the famed Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British

Columbia, they would be lush, cultivated, irrigated and plied by

meandering trails.

But Estell's Gold Rush Gardens project would be much, much more.

His plans for the site also include a 30-diamond baseball and softball

complex, 1,200 hotel rooms, a 260-space RV park, water slides, a

36-lane bowling center, an 8-plex movie theater with at least one IMAX

screen, 320,000 square feet of commercial space and more.

What's more, Board of Supervisors last week voted to begin

negotiating a deal with Estell for sale of the county-owned portion of

the mine.

The news may have raised eyebrows, with skeptics wondering why the

county is casting its lot with a longshot scheme like Estell's.

The answer is clear: Tuolumne County has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Under the best-case scenario, Estell's dreams are fully realized,

hundreds of thousands of new tourists visit each year, 1,500 new jobs

with collective wages of $40 million a year are created and county

collects $10 million in tax revenue annually.

Worst case? Estell's plans fall through, he doesn't buy the land and the county is left exactly where it is today.

But the actual outcome will probably be somewhere in the middle:

Estell could buy the land and develop only the gardens, or only some

other portion of his far-reaching plans.

In that case the county would be out from under property it never

should have owned in the first place and free of obligations to state

regulators who have already cost taxpayers millions.

Instead, jobs would be created and tax revenues would roll in.

Property that over the past decade has sucked away more than $6 million

would suddenly begin producing dollars.

County ownership of the mine dates back to 1996, when supervisors

struck what may be the worst deal in the county's more than 150-year

history: It released Sonora Mining Corp. from a multi-million dollar

reclamation bond in return for title to the played-out site.

The land was quickly dubbed "Golden Pond," and over the years that

followed there was no shortage of development plans: a commercial and

industrial center, a spacious park with trails and picnic areas, a

tri-county juvenile hall, a government office project, a lucrative

regional landfill, a new site for the Mother Lode Fair, a small-log

sawmill and more.

None of these ideas panned out. Instead, the state sued the county,

insisting that arsenic and other residue left by the 1980s and early

'90s mining operation were threatening neighboring properties. To

settle, the board in 2005 agreed to pay $6 million into a state cleanup


Earlier this year, the county called for proposals to develop the

property. Estell, who had first outlined his plans in 2008, filed a

more detailed plan and promised he had investors to make it happen.

A second proposal was withdrawn after Gold Rush Gardens was given a

better score by a county committee. Estell's plans drew unanimous board

and audience support at last week's supervisors meeting, and serious

talks will begin.

Key questions remain: How much should the county charge Estell for

the land? Does he have the financial backing? Is there a market for

such a project?

Still, the county is right to move forward.

Years of setbacks have characterized the mine story. Bringing it to a happy, even prosperous ending is worth pursuing.