A member of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau called upon the Sonora Union High School district board of trustees Tuesday night to nullify the sale of a portion of the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch to a Sonora area non-profit in the wake of temporary restraining order issued on the deal on March 28.
“It is now past the time for the close of escrow. The board would need to vote to extend the escrow,“ said Sasha Farkas, a board member with the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau. “The public is watching the decisions that you make now and those decisions will become your legacy.”
The district announced the sale of 112 acres of the ranch, located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road in Sonora, on Dec. 4 for $1 million to the Park Foundation, which wants to build a regional park.
Judge Kevin M. Seibert temporarily halted the sale before the expected close of escrow on March 31, when $500,000 was due from the Park Foundation. He is set to decide Friday whether to issue a permanent injunction through the end of a civil lawsuit filed against the school district by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, which alleges the district violated the Brown Act in their negotiations with the Park Foundation.
“The farm bureau is ready to put in a bond and see through litigation,” said Farkas, who was wearing a green and yellow hat which read “unjustly uprooted and Wildcat Ranch.”
“Go back to the beginning to make sure the process is fully transparent.”
The school board meeting was held at Cassina High School, with approximately 20 members of the public and district staff in attendance.
No representatives of the Park Foundation attended. On March 28, Park Foundation President Ron Jacobs said the non-profit remained committed to the sale.
Superintendent Mark Miller used a graphic of a barn — what the board has said is a possible development on the remaining 25 acres, paid for with the funds from Park Foundation sale — and cut off sections from it to represent the legal costs incurred by the district.
“It's a pivotal hearing for us. If the judge continues with his temporary restraining order, then we will not be able to move,” he said.
Holding a pair of scissors, Miller said the sections on the barn image each represented $10,000, adding up to a total of $500,000. The barn in the image was red, emblazoned with an American flag and surrounded by orange flowers.
He cut out three sections and said legal costs had already mounted to $30,000. The costs did not include the hearing and preparation work of the last hearing or the upcoming hearing on Friday, he said.
The amount could also be doubled if the board considered the tiered surplus property sale process, a system prescribed by education code which says the district must open the property to sale to certain public groups before others.
“I don't want anyone here or in the public blindsided by what the cost is,” he said.
Stacy Ingalls, Sonora High School agriculture teacher, said she found the spectacle “offensive.”
“The image that should be there is Sonora High students who are being affected,” she said.
Ingalls said the idea to build a barn on the remaining 25 acres had always been only that — just an idea.
“Never once has the board ever said that the money from the sale of the ranch is going to build for sure a $500,000 barn,” and added there was still $400,000 in a district account supposedly dedicated to the agriculture program.
Board member Kim Norton said the board should nullify the deal and open up bidding to the farm bureau to see “which one is more lucrative for the students and the school.”
The farm bureau, which is also a non-profit, submitted a letter to the board on Dec. 4, the day the sale was announced to the Park Foundation, and expressed their interest to open negotiations.
Board member Erik Andal also noted the agriculture program had not been dedicated the sale proceeds yet and said there was a history of CTE programs “not getting what they thought they were going to get.”
Smith defended Miller, adding about the cut poster, “the idea is, it’s costing us money.”
She said she didn’t understand the farm bureau’s “endgame” to the litigation because without the sale of the ranch to the Park Foundation, neither the ranch or the remaining acreage owned by the district could be developed.
“I feel the children are the ones who are losing,” Smith said. “We are punishing those students we have now by them not being able to use the facility.”
Farkas said the farm bureau fees were about half of those incurred by the district. The farm bureau is represented by Kelly Aviles, a first-Amendment lawyer from La Verne. The district is represented by Anne Collins with the Sacramento law office Lozano Smith.
The board elected to hold a vote during their May meeting to decide if they will convene a new advisory committee to reevaluate the sale of the Sonora Dome. Though some members of the public said the effort was redundant, Miller said the only way to make a sale of the structure feasible was to evaluate what land could be offered around it.
“We need to go back to square one,” Miller said. “What do we do with building and structure and land around that building in order to make a sale viable?”
Miller said after the meeting a new advisory committee wouldn’t necessarily be to decide if more of the property would be declared surplus. The advisory committee would take direction from the board upon its formation, and he said his hope was that they present “multiple options” about the property.
The former district advisory committee voted on Jan. 16, 2018 to declare the dome and two adjacent buildings formerly rented by the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance surplus.
Alan Zimmerly, president of the Historic Dome Preservation Group, lauded the effort as the best way to solve the primary issue facing the development of the dome as a public space: parking.
“The building itself and the two wings that were apart of the initial offering are not sufficient to ourselves or anybody else who might have interest in the property,” Zimmerly said.
The Historic Dome Preservation Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, said they intended to renovate the property as an arts and culture center if they came to possess it.
Smith said a new advisory committee should be staffed by planning experts who could develop research already conducted by the former district advisory committee.
“I think we need to be very careful about who is on that committee,” Smith said, suggesting parking, city code and real estate experts join.
Smith said members of the new advisory committee should not include any person who had “an emotional connection” to the property.
“I think we need logical clear thinking who are stakeholders who know what we are faced with making this decision,” she said.
Just before the start of the meeting, four members of the board, the district principals and the superintendent took a tour of the Cassina High School campus and the Sonora Dome.
Andal said it was his first time in the dome, while Smith said she used to have an office in the building. Miller noted there were structural issues with the building that also needed addressing, including the ceiling.
Zimmerly acknowledged it would be inappropriate for any members of his organization to sit on the committee and Ingalls said portions of the property were already subdivided in prospective data sets produced by the former committee.
Miller said a new real estate value and the value of the subdivided properties would need to be appraised.
“I don't think the committee would need to start from scratch,” Miller said. “But I think the landscape continues to change.”
Miller said the move to form the committee during the May meeting would likely mean the committee would first convene during the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.
Miller added that the district hoped to add a law enforcement course in the next year, with involvement from Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel.
Miller also said district received a resignation from Special Education Director Robert Mayben. A reason was not given.
Miller said he was not sure that the position was going to be filled, but many members of the public said a job description should be discussed with members of the special education department.
“I have a son who’s been without an IEP and he’s going to need more support to be successful throughout high school,” said board member Nancy Scott.
Miller agreed to confer with special education staff and tabled the approval of a new job description until the May meeting.