The Sonora Union High School district board of trustees will decide on Tuesday whether to enter into negotiations with Sonora-area non-profit organization The Park Foundation on a proposed land exchange of the district-owned 137-acre Wildcat Ranch for a 22-acre property adjacent to the high school.

Board of trustees president Jeanie Smith said she had no definitive answer on whether the district would ratify or deny the proposal, but Park Foundation president Ron Jacobs said the organization was “excited” about the prospect of possibly moving forward into negotiations.

“This is a very positive thing to see happen on the agenda and we are hopeful that this will come to a positive resolution on Tuesday that we actually turn into those discussions,” he said.

But even if the board chooses to ratify the negotiation proposal, the decision would be non-binding, Smith cautioned.

Either way the board decides, she added, “all options are on the table.”

“The board is anxious to move forward one way or another,” she said. “We would still be looking at all options, which is probably the truth even if we do ratify it.”

On May 1, the board heard over a dozen speakers speak against the proposal.

If they come to own the Wildcat Ranch, The Park Foundation plans to construct a stadium, various sports facilities, food purveyors and trees on more than 100 acres, and renovate the high school cross-country course on the property.

The Wilson property is located behind Dunlavy Field, is spotted with trees and shrubbery, and is largely hilly.

The about 22-acre tract adjacent to the school is valued on county tax rolls at just under $100,000. The ranch property has been valued by a Sonora appraisal company at $820,000.

A residence listed on county parcel documents is not part of the Wilson property, the owners said at the meeting on May 1.

Most people who spoke derided the swap as unbalanced and as a dereliction of the district’s commitments.

Many students spoke against it as well, including Sonora High School freshman and Future Farmers of America member Jordan Hampton.
“For students like me, we need the Wildcat Ranch to pursue our goals in ag,” she said.

The Park Foundation did not have any representatives speak during the flurry of public comment at the meeting, but Jacobs sought to emphasize that the land exchange — which would include an undecided monetary contribution — was not only a solution for Sonora High School’s financial duress, but for essential for the growth of the county.

“People that spoke before the last meeting are the same people that spoke before the committee. We did not hear anything new,” he said. “We are just enablers in the middle and the high school can make the park happen.”

Robin Walters, of Project Feed Our Kids in Sonora, had previously presented to a district advisory board her plan for a reproduction western town at the site to teach agriculture and life skills. Walters, who spoke out against the land exchange at the meeting, organized a rally the Saturday before to picket the proposal.

Smith declined to indicate whether she would personally support or decline the negotiation proposal.

“No, because everybody on the board has something to say,” she said. “My mind could be changed. We have an intelligent board and they might have thought of something I haven't thought of.”

Smith added that the comments of the public had been constructive in providing the board a gauge for community opinion.

“We take all of that into consideration. I couldn't assign a percentage or anything like that but we do listen carefully to their concerns and opinions,” she said.

Jacobs said that The Park Foundation proposal had largely gone misunderstood by the public, and revealed that the non-profit had submitted two proposals to the district about the 22-acre Wilson property adjacent to the high school.

“The land next to the high school offers so much. What about the expansion of the high school? It's not going to happen at the Wildcat Ranch,” he said.

Jacobs said that in the proposals, the Wilson property would act as a campus and athletic expansion for the high school. In another, barns and crops could be developed on the site as a location for the campus agriculture program.

In both proposals, he said, a land reclamation project to level the steep hill on the property would be required. The Park Foundation would not be involved in the development of the land, and it would be up to the high school what path to pursue with the property if they chose to pursue the land exchange, he said.

“You need to open your eyes and have a vision of what can be done. I think the primary advantage is having a property adjacent to the high school,” he said.

Jacobs said that the school’s agriculture program could also be integrated into the Wildcat Ranch park development if they chose to pursue the option.

On Tuesday if the decision was made to ratify the negotiation proposal, Smith said the board would discuss the next phases.

“The detailed discussions are coming in the days following the ratification of the letter,” Jacobs said. “We are ready to sit down with the high school as soon as possible and see if there is a path forward.”

The Sonora Union High School District has until June 16 to agree to begin negotiations on the proposal.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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