Sonora Union High School Superintendent Mark Miller said Tuesday the Park Foundation, a Sonora-area non profit, has secured the $500,000 required to close escrow on 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch property by the end of March.

“I fully anticipate by the time we have our next board meeting I will have signed the close of escrow papers and the Park Foundation will take conditional possession,” he said during the board of trustees meeting Tuesday night.

Miller said following the meeting he saw a report that confirmed the money was raised. The Park Foundation was prepared to deposit the money with the district once the close of escrow papers were signed, he said.

An escrow deadline was set for March 31, 2019, when $500,000 is due from the foundation. A phased payment process in two deposits of $250,000 each would last until March 31, 2020.

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.

The Wildcat Ranch is a 137-acre property located at Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road. It has a cross country course through the property, and some acreage is used by the high school’s agriculture program.

Miller said the sale would not be upended by litigation filed against the district by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, which has alleged the district violated the Brown Act, a California law that guarantees public participation in local government meetings.

“They have been very clear that they are one hundred percent behind their plan and they are still going forward,” Miller said of the Park Foundation.

The lawsuit against the district says the board exceeded the scope of discussion allowed in closed session meetings regarding the property sale by allowing members of The Park Foundation to sit in on a closed session that the public was barred from attending, among other grievances. If their lawsuit is successful, a civil court judge can nullify the sale.

Miller said in an email on Feb. 21 the first case management conference was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. June 14.

During a presentation on the second interim budget, Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza said she increased the legal fee budget by $40,000 because of the lawsuit.

Miller added he allowed county jail inmates hired by the Park Foundation to remove brush on the 112 acre ranch parcel between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. this week.

The 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 accessible to 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 on the remaining 25 acres.

The Dome

The Historic Dome Preservation Group, a Sonora-area organization determined to refurbish and repurpose the Sonora Dome, acknowledged Tuesday that the primary roadblock was the lack of adequate parking.

“It's going to take a lot of thought and creativity and imagination and unfortunately some sacrifice someplace. Something has got to give somewhere in order to develop parking on site,” said president Alan Zimmerley. “We can’t move forward until this issue is resolved.”

Miller said moving Dario Cassina High School from property adjacent to the dome was one option the district was considering as it moved forward with considering a sale.

“It’s going to be very difficult to make the Dome a viable option for multipurpose use without figuring out legitimate parking, and that includes ingress and egress to the property,” he said.

Board President Jim Riggs and Miller both said the infrastructure at Cassina High School, including “leaky, 40-year-old portables,” were not viable for the long term.

Zimmerley said for the group to be compliant with city ordinances, they needed to provide a certain amount of parking spaces based on the size of the building. He proposed the board specify what part of the seven acres surrounding the Dome — which includes Lyons Park and Cassina High School — they would be willing to part with as additional surplus property.

The board declared the Dome and two adjacent buildings previously rented by Tuolumne County Arts surplus in January 2018. Cassina High School and the practice baseball field are not surplus.

If the group took possession of the Cassina High School campus, they would remove the temporary buildings on the grounds and seek to find use for the buildings, Zimmerly said.

Cassina High School principal Roy Morlan said the group taking over the campus would create issues through student displacement.

“Students are involved here. We want to do what’s best for students,” he said.

Morlan said he would leave the decision up to the board, but said he didn’t see how the high school could be surplus because it was being used. He said he did not know where another location for the alternative education high school.

Miller said the remaining 25 acres of the Wildcat Ranch could be considered an option for the relocation of Cassina High School.

“I don’t think we are at a place where we would discount any options at this point,” he said.

Davina Lane, a member of the Historic Dome Preservation Group who spoke alongside Zimmerly, said the group has filed with the IRS to be recognized as a non-profit.

Lane described the group’s vision for the dome as “a focal point for visual arts” and “a center for art and cultural enrichment for our community as well as surrounding areas.”

The facility would include a museum, classrooms, galleries, she said.

“We’re going to go at this until we find a way. We can make it happen,” she said.

In June 2018, Zimmerly estimated it would cost more than $7 million to install parking, as well as fix and modernize the roof, air conditioning, heating, electrical, seismic retrofitting and ADA.

The Dome, located off South Barretta Street in Sonora, was built in 1909. It was used as an elementary school until it was abandoned in 1967 after a seismic inspection. The Sonora Union High School District purchased the site in 1973 and it served as a superintendent’s office and the Tuolumne County Schools Office before being used as the Sonora district office until 2010.

Zimmerly added there are fewer than 20 parking spaces at the Dome. Additional concepts to provide parking included street parking, off-site parking, or a tram that would run from the Sugg House on Theall Street up to the Dome.

He also suggested the board reform a district advisory committee (which provided recommendations to the district on the dome and ranch on Sept. 14, 2018) to review the possibility of additional property being declared surplus.

Riggs said their primary objective moving forward with the Dome was to be “inclusive.”

Miller said he wanted ensure that all stakeholders, including the committee and members of the public, could be involved in the next steps.

Other problems at the dome include the leaking roof and the R-1 zoning, Lane said.

Lane added the group did not know how much it would cost to operate the dome and adjacent buildings.

Lane said demolition of the dome would “run to seven figures” and require 200 truckloads to remove toxic materials such as asbestos and lead paint.

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

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