The Sonora Union High School District has directed its legal counsel to respond to a letter from the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau that demanded the district rescind the sale of a portion of the Wildcat Ranch property to a Sonora-area non-profit.

Superintendent Mark Miller said the response was intended to be compliant with a requirement that the district respond within 30 days, but it would not rescind the sale as requested.

“We are waiting for counsel to draft and send a letter, at which point the ball will be again in their court,” he said after the special board of trustees meeting on Tuesday night.

The farm bureau submitted the letter to the district on Jan. 3 alleging that actions taken during 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 approved the sale of 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch to The Park Foundation, a non-profit that plans to build a community park at the location, for $1 million on Dec. 4, one week before three newly elected trustees of the five-member board were seated.

Members of the Park Foundation were allowed into a closed session with the board on Oct. 23 when members of the public were barred from participating.

Miller said the details of the response letter could not be shared because it had not yet been drafted. Once it is sent, the letter becomes public record, he said.

If the district does not respond within 30 days, the farm bureau can can seek invalidation of the sale by a judge.
The farm bureau has 15 days after receiving the letter to file a lawsuit against the district in Tuolumne County Superior Court as a civil case.

Shaun Crook, a Tuolumne County Farm Bureau board member, said anything short of rescinding the contract would likely trigger another legal response by the farm bureau, but he would reserve additional comment until the letter was received.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see what their formal response is,” he said.

The farm bureau’s attorney, Kelly Aviles, an attorney from La Verne who specializes in First Amendment rights, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau is a “non-governmental, non-profit, voluntary membership California corporation whose purpose is to protect and promote agricultural interests throughout the state of California and to find solutions to the problems of the farm, the farm home and the rural community,” according to their website.

Crook said the group’s formal opposition to the sale was initiated out of the interest of the entire community.

The farm bureau believed the district should develop a comprehensive plan that dealt with surplus properties at the Sonora Dome and ranch, as well as address attendance issues at the high schools and agriculture education, he said.

Crook added that the district was interested in negotiating with the district on a potential sale of the property, but he declined to provide information regarding a price of the property or how they intended to develop it.

“We aren't doing this with the express intent of purchasing this property. We want to make sure that the best interests of the students and the district is represented for the future. We don’t agree the current deal is accomplishing that,” he said.

The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau issued a letter to the district seeking to open negotiations on the property on Dec. 4.

Crook and Chinese Camp rancher Dick Gaiser previously alleged Brown Act violations against the district over the Oct. 23 closed session.
The district issued an unconditional commitment letter to the parties on Dec. 4 to absolve the district from potential legal action.

The board was in closed session for approximately 30 minutes to discuss the the farm bureau letter. The board agenda item was identified with “significant exposure to litigation.”

Crook recorded a video on his phone of the board following their return to closed session when board president Dr. Jim Riggs announced the district’s intent to respond.

There was fewer than 10 people in attendance, with the majority made of up district staff.

The board also amended minutes from a Dec. 17 special meeting where they reviewed the Wildcat Ranch sale to to remove a reference from public comment about the number of speakers in favor of the Park Foundation proposal.

The original minutes indicated “12 people supported” deal, but they were amended to reflect that 19 people spoke regarding the sale during an extended public comment period of one and a half hours.

Board member Jeanie Smith opposed the motion and advocated for the inclusion that a majority of the speakers spoke in favor of the deal.

Riggs proposed the change because he said some speakers either did not indicate their support either way, and others were ambiguous.

The sale is in escrow.

An escrow deadline was set for March 31, 2019, when $500,000 is due from the Park Foundation. A phased payment process will last until March 31, 2020.

The Park Foundation has proposed a regional park on the 112 acres with a joint-use stipulation for district use of tennis courts expected to be built on The Park Foundation property and for district and public use of a cross-country course that weaves through both parcels. The foundation will also develop infrastructure accessible to the 25-acre parcel owned by the district, which include water, sewer, electrical, parking and roads. A Park Foundation representative estimated the infrastructure developments could amount to as much as $2 million.

The district proposed using the $1 million and approximately $400,000 in a district capital outlay fund to build a barn on the remaining 25 acres.

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

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