A local agriculture advocacy group has filed an injunction in the Tuolumne County Superior Court to temporarily block the sale of 112 acres of the Sonora Union High School district-owned Wildcat Ranch to a Sonora-area non profit before escrow closes on the property at the end of the month.
Kelly Aviles, attorney representing the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, said Judge Kevin M. Seibert was expected to decide on Thursday whether the sale of a portion of the ranch to the The Park Foundation would be temporarily halted. If successful, the injunction is expected to remain in place pending the conclusion of a separate lawsuit calling for a nullification of the deal filed against the district and The Park Foundation in February.
“I’m really hopeful that the court will see the serious problems with the sale,” Aviles said. “It needs to be temporarily halted to allow the court to hear the merits of the lawsuit.”
The injunction is essentially a restraining order which would prevent the district and The Park Foundation from moving forward with a sale while the other lawsuit is litigated, Aviles said.
If the injunction is enforced, the district cannot accept payment from the Park Foundation, execute payment related to the sale, or allow access to the property to make physical modifications.
The district approved the sale of 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch to The Park Foundation, which plans to build a community park on the site, for $1 million on Dec. 4.
Miller said Monday the deal was still in escrow, with a March 31, 2019 deadline where $500,000 was due from the foundation. Miller said on March 12 he validated that the Park Foundation had raised the necessary funds, but they were not yet deposited in district accounts.
The Park Foundation would take conditional control over the property through the end of a phased payment process scheduled to last until March 31, 2020.
The Wildcat Ranch is a 137-acre agricultural parcel located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mark Miller said if a judge does not halt the sale, the deal was expected to go through by the close of escrow.
“I certainly can’t predict how a court will decide a case,” Miller said. “We would close escrow as soon as possible, but I would not be comfortable giving an absolute drop dead date.”
According to the Tuolumne County Superior Court, the hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Thursday in Department 4.
Ron Jacobs, president of The Park Foundation, declined to comment on Monday due to the pending litigation.
Miller said on March 12 he allowed county jail inmates hired by the Park Foundation to remove brush on the for-sale parcel between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. that week.
According to court documents filed by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, the urgency of the injunction was due to statements credited to Miller in media reports following a board of trustees meeting on March 12 where he said the deal would move forward as planned.
Aviles said the ranch was not subdivided to reflect the 112-acre for sale property and the farm bureau has expected that to occur before the sale moved forward.
“The Farm Bureau believed that, so long as the parcel remained undivided, there was no immediate risk of the illegal transfer being finalized,” the document said. “Recent
statements from the District show that it intends to transfer the property to the Park
Foundation without subdividing it and, thus, immediate relief is needed.”
The documents said as of March 13 there was no application with the county to subdivide the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch property to a parcel being sold to The Park Foundation.
An employee of the Tuolumne County Surveyor’s Office said Monday that public agencies, like school districts, were exempt from the Subdivision Map Act which requires applications for subdivision and completion of a parcel map.
The Wildcat Ranch property was not subdivided with the county as of Monday, a county employee said.
The property is zoned A-10, or general agriculture on a 10-acre minimum, and could allow for the construction of homes, schools, livestock facilities and other uses. The injunction acknowledges that the agreement “anticipates park facilities,” but it does not prohibit the Park Foundation “from subdividing and selling any part or parts of the Site to a third party for non-park purposes, or from limiting access to a ‘regional community’ equivalent to a neighborhood country club.”
The district argues in their opposition document that the court does not have the jurisdiction to invalidate the sale because California Government Code gives express authority to the school district to sell surplus property.
The laws were intended “to prohibit members of the public from invalidating the decisions of school districts as they relate to the disposal of surplus real property,” the document said.
The board declared a portion of the property surplus on July 18, 2018. Aviles argues that the property should not have been declared surplus because it was used in part by the high school agriculture program and for a cross country course which winds around the property. A district advisory committee recommended in September 2017 that the ranch should not be deemed surplus property.
The district also argued the Park Foundation has a valid claim to the property because a sale agreement was executed by both parties.
“Escrow has not closed on the property, however the mere act of depositing title to the property into escrow creates an equitable title on behalf of the Park Foundation,” the document said.
Aviles said they contacted the court on Friday March 15 to schedule an emergency hearing before the close of escrow in the coming weeks.
Miller said the parties appeared in court on Tuesday, March 19, and district representatives said the earliest escrow could close was March 29. Seibert asked that all briefs associated with the injunction be filed by Tuesday in preparation for the Thursday hearing, Miller said.
A Park Foundation attorney listened to the hearing over a court phone system, Miller said.
In their injunction and primary lawsuit, the farm bureau alleged the district violated the Brown Act, a California law that guarantees public participation in local government meetings, by exceeding the scope of discussion allowed in closed session meetings regarding the property sale. Members of The Park Foundation were allowed to sit in on a closed session that the public was barred from attending, Aviles said.
The Farm Bureau submitted a cure-and-correct letter to the district on Jan. 3 alleging closed-session negotiations on Oct. 23 and on Nov. 6 regarding the terms of the sale of the ranch constituted an illegal violation of the Brown Act.
The district rejected the demand to nullify the sale in a letter sent to the bureau on Jan. 25.
The district claimed it cured allegations with unconditional commitment letters to no longer allow representatives in closed session meetings, and that the Nov. 6 closed session was within a confidentiality exception that allowed discussion on the price of the property.
The unconditional commitment letters were sent to Chinese Camp rancher Dick Gaiser and Shaun Crook, a Tuolumne County Farm Bureau board member, who claimed the district violated the Brown act by allowing Park Foundation representatives into an Oct. 23 closed session.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau is the local imprint of a California nonprofit and non-governmental agricultural advocacy group.
The sale agreement between the district and the foundation includes a joint-use stipulation where the district would have access to tennis courts expected to be built on the 112 acres and for district and public use of the cross-country course.
The foundation also committed to developing water, sewer, electrical and road infrastructure on the 25-acre parcel remaining under district ownership.
The district proposed using the $1 million payment and approximately $400,000 in a district capital outlay fund to build a barn for the high school agriculture program on the remaining 25 acres.