All but 25 acres of the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch was sold to the Sonora non-profit The Park Foundation for $1 million during a special meeting of the Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees Tuesday night.
The sale is expected to be closed by the escrow deadline on March 31, 2019, when $500,000 is due from the Park Foundation, the first installment of a phased payment process that will last until March 31, 2020.
The sale was met with condemnation by parents, teachers and students who urged the board to postpone a decision until new board members Nancy Scott, Erik Andal and Jim Riggs were seated at the next meeting on Dec. 11.
“It feels like pushing a special meeting to make a decision, in my view, feels wrong. If it's really what your constituency wants it's going to happen anyway, if you wait a week, if you wait a month, if you wait two months,” said Cassina High School teacher Dina Pinocchio.
About 25 people attended the meeting.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mark Miller held up a schematic of the proposed Sonora High School extension campus at the Wildcat Ranch that never came to fruition after the purchase of the property by the district in 1988.
The district never had the opportunity to make that dream a reality, he said. But now, the district did have the opportunity to improve agriculture education on the remaining property.
“The deal, in my opinion, is fairly straightforward but very complex,” he said. “This deal meets the needs of the students at Sonora Union High School District. What it does to the community can be valuable.”
Park Foundation President Ron Jacobs said the sale was the culmination of nearly two years of effort to secure the ranch for a community park that would benefit not only the district, but the people of Tuolumne County.
“The natural beauty of the land and the central location within the county have made the duration and intensity of the discussions worth the effort,” he said to the board on Tuesday. “While we most certainly have been challenged by this process, we have not lost sight of our vision for building a beautiful park for every citizen to enjoy.”
The vote to approve the sale passed 3-1, with board president Jeanie Smith, and trustees Rob Lyons and Jeff Norstrom voting in support, and trustee Kimberly Norton voting against. Board member Kathy Ankrom not present.
Gregory Crook, a Sonora High School student and Sonora Future Farmers of America parliamentarian, said he knew the sale was inevitable but didn’t believe the district was left with enough property to support a large number of projects.
It requires at least eight acres to feed one cow for a year, he said.
Sonora FFA president and Sonora High School student Britain Traub questioned Miller and the board about the specifics of the plan and what exact parcel would be left for the agriculture program.
Miller pointed to a projected aerial map and said the 25 acres would include the area used by the ag program along Tuolumne Road, and would extend south along Wards Ferry Road.
“I think we have potentially close to a million dollars to put up a building that will be the first real building for animals and FFA,” he said, “since before your parents were in school.”
Miller said he could not commit the district to using the sale proceeds for the development of a barn, but said he would support the effort to use the funds for the agriculture program.
“It will be my strong recommendation that the board use at least a significant portion of the funds generated from this sale to put up a structure of some kind to further their students’ education.” he said.
Miller said statewide agriculture education was moving toward environmental issues as opposed to livestock, and he hoped the district would also utilize the remaining land to that goal.
Miller added that because the district was a government entity, it would be exempt from laws mandating that the county approve the property line of the deal.
But unlike many past meetings where the opposition to the sale of the ranch seemed to drown out voices of support, Park Foundation representatives, most of the board and at least one member of the public declared their belief in the project.
“This has become something where it's been almost divisive and my hope is this comes together and this sounds good to everyone,” said David Collie, who said he knew members of the Park Foundation but was present at the meeting as a member of the public. “Let's move forward so we can do this and benefit everybody.”
Most of the support for the sale urged cooperation in the next steps of the process. Park Foundation Vice President Roger Haughton said the development of the community park would bring “new ways” of unifying the community, and noted he was a member of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau when he moved to the area.
“A yes vote does not destroy a viable ag program for our youth. I think it will serve to develop them in the Old Wards Ferry or Wildcat Ranch land,” he said. “Lets work as a community, everyone, to develop park and ag objectives.”
But Sonora High School agriculture teacher Stacey Ingalls said she was unsure that the ag community could surmount the “war” that was waged with the Park Foundation over the sale of the ranch for about a year.
“That long term neighborhood collaboration is going to be vital to the success of the property,” she said. “We’ve been feeling like that for a long time that we are not together on the same page. There has been a wall built between the ag community and moving forward with the Park Foundation.”
Following the meeting, representatives from the Park Foundation approached Ingalls and dedicated their effort to make amends and act as neighbors.
The joint-use agreement
Fundamental to the deal is a joint-use agreement that would maintain the existing cross-country course and develop a tennis court on the Park Foundation property, as well as move sewer lines and Tuolumne Utilities District water lines to the shared border.
The agreement, which has not been negotiated, must be executed once the improvements have been established, before Dec. 31, 2019.
The agreement dictates that the district be provided with shared and equal access to a well located on the Park Foundation property, with the district accessing the well near the property line. The district will also have access to park restroom facilities,roads and parking.
A cross country trail on the property will be retained and available for district use, but may be modified in the development of the park.
“The main idea is that it will stay intact and for our students to utilize,” Norstrom said. “There’s a lot of benefits that comes along with considering this idea.”
The Park Foundation plans to install tennis courts, which will be available to the district, too, the agreement said.
The Park Foundation also agreed to pay and maintain a boundary between the two properties. The district will seek to provide access and easement rights for The Park Foundation through the Wards Ferry Road side of the property.
The deal with the Park Foundation will be nullified if they cannot purchase the property in accordance with the phased payment process. Following the payment of $500,000 by March 31, 2019, a second payment of $250,000 is due on Sept. 30, 2019, and a final payment of $250,000 is due by March 31, 2020.
The entire parcel was previously estimated to have a value of $820,000.
Jacobs declined to comment on how much money the Park Foundation has on hand. He said that the non-profit would seek out investors and donations from individuals and groups both within and outside Tuolumne County.
Jacobs added that there was no date set for a groundbreaking or for opening the park.
The Park Foundation has 60 days to conduct a due diligence review of the property. Jacobs said soil sampling at the Wildcat Ranch would likely begin on Wednesday.
District Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza said it had not been determined where the payments for the ranch would be deposited into the district budget, but said it would likely be in Fund 40, which currently holds $400,000 from the sale of the former district agriculture ranch in Jamestown.
The sale of the property challenged by members of the agriculture community based on alleged Brown Act violations by the district.
Chinese Camp rancher Dick Gaiser, a member of the district advisory committee that recommended the district not sell the ranch in September 2017, questioned the legitimacy of special meeting because the agreement was not available to the public 72 hours before it started.
Miller said because it was a special meeting, only 24 hours were required to post the agreement. The agreement was posted online with the agenda 26 and a half hours before the start of the meeting, Miller said.
“It’s a question of transparency,” Gaiser said. “It not only reflects on the board but it reflects on the people negotiating with the board.”
At the meeting on Tuesday, the board also issued unconditional commitment letters to Gaiser and Tuolumne County Farm Bureau representative Shaun Crook in response to the charge that they violated the Brown Act by allowing Park Foundation representatives into an Oct. 23 closed session meeting regarding the potential sale of the Wildcat Ranch.
Smith said the purpose of the special meeting was to meet the 30-day deadline for the Brown Act violation allegation issued on Nov. 6, and denied that the district was rushing a deal before three of the board members were unseated next week.
“This meeting takes the place of what would have happened last Tuesday had we all been able to attend,” she said.
The board canceled the regular meeting scheduled for Nov. 27 because they could not establish a quorum.
The board also received a letter from the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, which sought to enter into preliminary negotiations regarding the ranch. Smith entered the letter into the meeting record, but Miller and no board member made a statement on the proposal.
Miller said the three new board members who will be seated on Tuesday night, replacing Lyons, Norstrom and Ankrom, could potentially bring a motion to nullify the deal with the Park Foundation.
“Whether or not that would stand up to legal challenges would be up to attorneys,” he said. “They can bring up a vote to do anything they want to do, legal or not.”