Vision for Jamestown mine site could ‘blossom’

By Margie Thompson December 01, 2008 01:42 pm

Now comes a Modesto developer with the latest plan for Tuolumne County’s 450-acre Jamestown Mine property: Gold Rush Gardens, a botanical wonderland that would be the centerpiece of a major tourist attraction including a convention center, campground, hotel, shops and athletic fields.

So is developer Vincent Estell’s plan just as fanciful as a half dozen ill-fated projects proposed over the years for the played-out terrain? Or, this time, is it for real?

The mine property’s star-crossed history notwithstanding, Estell’s imaginative plans deserve a careful look. But county officials charting the mine site’s future should do so with caution and with resolve not to repeat the mistakes of the past — which have been legion.

At various times in its life, the abandoned mine site has been eyed as the future home to a commercial and industrial center, a spacious county park with trails and picnic areas, a tri-county juvenile hall, a government office complex, a lucrative regional landfill, a new site for the Mother Lode Fair, a small-log sawmill and more.

 None of these ideas were realized.

Instead the county was successfully sued by the state, which insisted that arsenic and other residue left by 1980s and early ‘90s mining operations was threatening neighboring properties. In a 2005 settlement, Tuolumne County agreed to pay $6 million in cleanup costs in return for state pledges that not a cent more would be sought.

The settlement confirmed what many had long suspected: That the Board of Supervisors’ 1996 decision to release Sonora Mining Corp. from a multi-million dollar reclamation bond in return for title to the tainted property was not the best outcome.

Now, with $6 million in bonds sold to pay into the state cleanup fund, the county is understandably looking for ways to cut its losses.

So is Estell’s fascinating plan the answer? Is it the idea that will finally fulfill the potential envisioned by officials who years ago named the mine property — with apologies here to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn — “Golden Pond.”

Or is there truth to the old adage, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is?”

At this point, either could be the case. That’s why the developer’s plan deserves a closer look.

On first blush, Estell’s proposal seems not just like pie in the sky, but pie in the stratosphere. Lush, beauty akin to Victoria, British Columbia’s spectacular Butchart Gardens? Atop a once-toxic mine in Jamestown? Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually?

It’s tempting to dismiss such vision as frivolous, but skeptics have routintely doubted the visionaries among us. To their credit, Supervisors Dick Pland (“Impressive, ambitious,” he said) and Mark Thornton (“Kudos,” he told Estell) saw potential.

And the developer himself reminded the board that The Butchart Gardens itself rose from the ruins of a played-out rock quarry.

Certainly, many questions must be answered — not the least of which will be whether Estell, as he hopes, can tap into the state cleanup fund to help make Mother Lode Gardens a reality. Also, the county — which Estell said would be “an equal partner” — should assure that this partnership comes without liabilities or costs.

The care with which county supervisors and their staff research this proposal may determine whether Mother Lode Gardens is one more costly mistake in a long-running drama that has already seen far too many of them — or a stroke of genius that just might, at long last, lead to redemption.