One of the investors behind the Stone Mill Center commercial development near the Pedro Wye intersection anticipates construction to begin before the end of the year following a judge’s tentative ruling in Tuolumne County Superior Court on Friday that supported the county’s decision to approve the project more than a year ago.

The project was stalled after a group called the Tuolumne County Citizens for Responsible Growth filed a lawsuit last May challenging the county Board of Supervisors approval of the 16,000-square-foot commercial center on April 4, 2017, said Gary Simning, of Columbia Union, LLC, an investment group funding the development that was also named in the suit.

“We’ve had a number of people say, ‘Finish the lawsuit and come back and talk to us when you can give us a definitive timeline of when you can get going,’ “ Simning said of interest from potential lessees to occupy spaces at the center.

Citizens for Responsible Growth will have a period of time to appeal the case to the Fifth District Court of Appeal after the ruling becomes final, which is expected within the next couple weeks.

The development is approved for two acres on the southwest corner of Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads that’s owned by Golden State Holdings, LLC, a group of real-estate investors based in Oregon that also owns several other connecting parcels to the north and south totaling about 16 additional acres.

In 2013, the Citizens for Responsible Growth also filed a lawsuit against the board’s approval of an 80-unit apartment complex at the northwest corner of Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads on land that was also owned by Golden State Holdings, LLC.

That lawsuit also claimed the county should have required the backers of the apartments to complete an environmental impact report, also known as an EIR, which are more extensive than the “mitigated negative declaration” that the county used to study the project’s potential impacts on the environment.

Simning, who also was to serve as developer of the apartments, withdrew the plans for that project after determining the cost to defend it in court would be too high for it to continue to be viable. However, he vows to fight the group’s claims to the end this time.

“At this point, we’re going to move ahead,” Simning said. “If they want to appeal, great, because we are not going to pay their attorney fees.”

Simning estimated the cost to defend the Stone Mill Center over the past year will be more than $75,000 in attorney fees, which included time that the Tuolumne County Counsel’s Office spent working on the lawsuit.

He has said in the past that Golden State Holdings, LLC, previously paid about $40,000 in legal fees related to the lawsuit against the apartments.

One of the claims made in the lawsuit against the county and Stone Mill Center developers is that the project is part of a “piecemealing” effort to develop the land in the area owned by the Oregon-based LLC, a process that would be illegal under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The group has pointed to a 2007 pre-application filed with the county after the Oregon investors purchased the land to develop a $40 million shopping center that would be more than four times larger than the Stone Mill Center, though official plans were ultimately never submitted.

In 2015, Simning also asked for the county’s Airport Land-Use Commission to evaluate whether it would be possible to build a multi-story hotel and other commercial buildings on the 10-acre parcel to the south and west of where the Stone Mill Center would be located.

County officials had denied the allegations of piecemealing at public meetings prior to the project’s approval because the developer and landowner are two separate entities.

Opponents of the project have also noted the ties of Simning and other people involved with the Stone Mill Center to the other ideas for the adjoining parcels.

Former Sonora Mayor Bill Canning, who served on the city council from 2005 to 2016, was planned to be the general contractor for the failed apartment complex.

Canning is still planned to be the general contractor for the Stone Mill Center project, Simning said Monday. The former mayor’s home address on Hope Lane is also listed with the California Secretary of State as the entity address for Columbia Union, LLC.

Simning denies that there are any plans for the adjoining parcels and said that the plaintiffs lost in court on each of those complaints.

“We have no interest in the adjoining pieces,” he said. “This was a standalone project.”

Barbara Farkas, president of Citizens for Responsible Growth, stated in an email that she had yet to see the decision and declined to comment on the group’s plans until the board can meet with its attorney.

Farkas also denied claims that the group’s intention was to halt the project from moving forward.

“Our suit was against Tuolumne County for rejecting CFRG’s appeal of the Planning Commission’s issuance of a building permit without a total review of the plan for the entire 15 acres owned by the LLCs, in which Simning was a deed holder and partner,” she stated. “Basically, our claim was against Tuolumne County for allowing piecemeal planning with disregard for impacts to the community.”

Visiting Judge Frank Dougherty, who retired from Merced County Superior Court in 2010, issued the ruling Friday in favor of the county and Stone Mill Center developers. He also denied the plaintiff’s arguments that the project would have a negative impact on traffic and aesthetics in the area.

Simning and Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl praised the decision and Dougherty’s review of the administrative record, which Drivdahl said totaled more than 1,000 pages.

Citizens for Responsible Growth was represented by Davis-based attorney Donald Mooney in court Friday, but no one from the group attended, according to Simning.

Simning added that several supporters of the development attended, including Jeff Redoutey, CEO of Blue Mountain Minerals in Columbia; Ron Kopf, project manager of the Stone Mill Center and elected board member for Tuolumne Utilities District; and Steve Campbell, owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Sonora, which is listing spaces at the center for lease.


Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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