Almost all of the public speakers at the Sonora Union High School District special workshop on the Wildcat Ranch professed support for the Sonora agriculture community, but many also asserted that a portion, if not all, of the 138-acre property was ripe for commercial or recreational development.
But Sonora High School agriculture teacher Stacey Ingalls issued a quavering and emotional appeal to the board for an alternative: keep the entire ranch property to enrich the agricultural and educational potential of the district, just as an advisory committee recommended to the board in September.
“Not everyone’s going to like what you decide, but make a decision please,” she said, nearly in tears. “My hands are tied, they are tied by the board not making any decisions. Please support our program and let us move forward.”
The issue of the Wildcat Ranch had “consumed” her “personal life and professional life” for over three years, she said, and now, the unified front of the agriculture community was desperate for direction.
More than 50 people packed the Sonora High School library to relate their personal visions for the Wildcat Ranch property, located at the intersection of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road.
Before speaking, Ingalls handed each of the board members a 481-signature petition to “save the Sonora High Wildcat Ranch.”
“The petitions are not to save the whole property, to save part of the property. It’s for the ag department. I have been battling for three years. I’m exhausted,” she said.
The Wildcat Ranch has been owned by the district for nearly 30 years, but has over 100 acres unused for educational purposes.
Former Sonora High School and Summerville High School ag teacher Carl Murray corroborated Ingalls’ statement and appealed to the board to invest in the ranch as an essential educational tool for students across many campus programs.
“I see the Wildcat Ranch as just a real jewel. It’s something very valuable,” he said. “I just wanted to relay to you how important I think this property is to Sonora High School.”
But the board members were unified in their belief that limited finances would restrict their ability to develop Wildcat Ranch to the ag community’s expectations. The public might expect a decisive resolution, they said, but the board likely had a long road of deliberations and discussions before an ultimate solution was developed.
“It’s not in our ability to do a program like everyone might envision,” board member Rob Lyons said. “It’s just a matter of funding that we don’t have.”
Jeanie Smith, referring to Ingalls’ speech, said, “we would love to make a decision and move on, but there are a lot of things to consider.”
The final decision, she said, would have to be “intelligent and informed” and do what was best for the students and the school.
“I don’t know at this point what we are going to be able to do, what decision we will make. This is just me, I am only one, but I don’t think it will be just one decision,” she said.
The trustees noted an appreciation for ideas given by members of the public, and board member Jeff Nostrom expressed openness for “all kinds of development” that would integrate the school cross-country course and ag program with a new vision for the site.
“We’re going to take that and talk about it and we’ll have to come up with some solution. Last year we had a different crisis. Now this is on the agenda,” he said.
The board heard from Ron Jacobs, president of the Park Foundation, a Sonora non-profit organization that had previously presented a mixed-recreational and educational plan to the district advisory committee.
“We are committed to actually bringing another jewel to the community, a regional community park open to the public,” Jacobs said, noting he had been communicating with Superintendent Pat Chabot on his plan to develop a site that included sports, agriculture, and arts facilities.
“I hope to continue the conversation with the board and with Pat and bring that new jewel to the county.”
Chuck LaKamp, a Sonora-area developer, also proposed the construction of either 14 or 17 acre commercial lots along Tuolumne Road, which would include the stipulation that 15 percent of the buildings be given to the district for educational purposes.
“It’s how you look at things. Don’t look at what you can’t do, look at what you can do,” he said.
While the board convened in closed session, LaKamp and Jacobs argued with each other about their respective visions for the ranch.
And even some of the old guard of the Tuolumne County ag community were divided on the degree to which the district should be involved in the future of the Wildcat Ranch.
Ty Wivell, a member of the advisory committee and a former Sonora Elementary School student at the iconic Sonora Dome, expressed to the board that the district was responsible for inspiring students to pursue ag as a career, and they could only do so if they further invested in the ranch.
“I want the school to keep the future in mind and the future of stimulating ag education and stimulating students to particulate, because I think if the program is there, they will.”
But Terry Clark, former principal of Sonora High School who retired in 2007, said he was emerging from a self-imposed silence on school affairs to voice his disagreement with the advisory committee recommendation.
“I believe that keeping the entire property could be detrimental to the school and the ag program,” he said, noting that the high school lacked the attendance and financial resources to maintain or develop the sight.
“Most ag programs would die to have 20 acres,” he said.
Much of the support for the ranch as a continued holding of the district was also interwoven with deference to the cross-country course at the site, including a report on its recent use in the Walk or Run After-Turkey Day event by advisory committee member Kirsti Dyer.
Following almost two hours of board discussion and public comment, the board convened in an adjacent room for a closed session to discuss the possible criteria for the sale of property, but no decision was made.
A small ripple of laughter echoed in the library, and after three hours, the workshop was adjourned.
This story was edited to correct the spelling of Ron Jacobs's name.