A Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge granted a temporary injunction Friday to block the sale of 112 acres of the Sonora Union High School District owned Wildcat Ranch to the Park Foundation, a Sonora-area non-profit.
Judge Kevin M. Seibert said the district did not comply with the legal notice requirements prescribed by the sale of district designated surplus property.
“This is not horseshoes or hand grenades where close is enough,” Seibert said.
The district has been sued by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, a non-governmental agriculture advocacy group that alleges the district violated the Brown Act and the surplus property sale process in their negotiations with The Park Foundation, who planned to build a regional park at the location.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mark Miller said after the hearing he was disappointed.
“The board will have to meet and have a discussion about what this means,” he said.
Miller said the district would evaluate the decision and decide to proceed based on the interests of the students at the school.
Board of Trustees President Jim Riggs said he was processing the decision and the board would need to convene before they decided to take any potential action.
“The judge has spoken,” he said.
Park Foundation President Rob Jacobs said the non-profit remained committed to the sale.
“We are unfortunately at a junction where efforts in terms of money and time are just wasted,” he said. “We can all work together as a community and make great things happen.”
Kelly Aviles, the attorney representing the farm bureau, said after the hearing the district should nullify the sale and restart the process to bring them into legal compliance.
“We’re very pleased with the decision. I think it's the right decision for the court to make sure that whatever happens with the property it's done in compliance with the law,” Aviles said.
Seibert said Friday the district did not send a timely notice of the sale to the county and did not send notices offering to negotiate a sale or lease of the property at below-market value as prescribed by the Naylor Act, which governs for sale property that have outdoor recreational uses.
Seibert said a high school cross country track that runs through the Wildcat Ranch qualified it as under the auspices of the Naylor Act.
“I don't see how anybody with a straight face could say cross country is not an outdoor recreational activity,” Seibert said. “If running outdoors is not an outdoor recreational activity, I don’t know what is.”
Seibert also said the district did not send a notice to the county which is intended to check if the sale is in compliance with the county general plan.
Anne Collins, at attorney from the group Lozano and Smith representing the district, said the district hand-delivered a notice to the county on April 1, after the temporary restraining order was issued.
Seibert said the notice was required to be sent to the county before the sale was executed, and added the district appeared to have sent the notice only after they became aware they were not in compliance.
Seibert made the preliminary injunction judgment without prejudice, which means the district can seek to have it dissolved.
The farm bureau is required to post a $250,000 bond to allow the preliminary injunction to stand. Seibert gave them until 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, one day after the close of the 15-day temporary restraining order. He granted Aviles an extra day because of the limited business days until the deadline. If the bond is not posted, the district will have no legal impediments blocking the sale.
Seibert said it appeared to the court the district complied with their obligations under the Brown Act. He did not reference the Brown Act in his decision for the preliminary injunction.
Aviles acknowledged the court could only consider potential Brown Act violations identified in the official written allegations levied against the district. She argued the spirit of the Brown Act, a California law that guarantees public participation in local government meetings, was violated multiple times throughout the sale process.
“They did it in secret. They negotiated with the Park Foundation even before it was declared surplus,” she said.
The Farm Bureau submitted a cure-and-correct letter to the district on Jan. 3 alleging closed-session negotiations on Oct. 23 and on Nov. 6 regarding the terms of the sale of the ranch constituted a violation of the Brown Act because Park Foundation members were able to sit in on the meeting on Oct. 23. The district sent an unconditional commitment letter to not commit any violations in coming meetings, which Collins said absolved them.
Seibert also said a declaration from Cindy Costello, administrative assistant to the superintendent, indicated the district sent out surplus property for sale notices to public agencies on the correct timetable.
A for sale notice was also required to be published in The Union Democrat for three successive weeks, Seibert said. Another potential violation was because the notices were published on Aug. 24, Sept. 4 and Sept. 11, Seibert said, noting Sept. 4 was not a successive week from the first publishing.
Collins said the court was focusing on “hyper-technical” issues which would harm the district because of their already-signed purchase and sale agreement with the Park Foundation.
Seibert rejected the argument, saying state law required the district to adhere to very specific rules when selling property.
“It reminds me of my days in school when I accused my math teachers of being hyper-technical,” he said, adding there was only a right or wrong way to do things. “If you don’t, you got to do a do over and do it the right way,” he said.
The district was petitioned by the Park Foundation in October 2018 during the tier two process to begin negotiations after they provided evidence non-profits could be included in that stage. The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau also issued a letter to the board on Dec. 4 expressing an interest in opening negotiations, but the letter did not indicate what they wanted to do with the property.
Also in attendance on Friday from the district were Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza and trustee Jeanie Smith; from the Park Foundation there was Vice President Roger Haughton, Chief Financial Officer Jay Canavan and Directors Ron Patel and Gail Witzlsteiner; as well as farm bureau board member Sasha Farkas and rancher Dick Gaiser, who filed a Brown Act violation allegation against the district.
The district board of trustees voted to sell 112 acres of the 137 acre Wildcat Ranch, located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road, for $1 million on Dec. 4.
Seibert granted a 15-day temporary restraining order on the sale on March 29, pending the decision on Friday. The property is in escrow and was expected to close on March 31 with a $500,000 deposit from the Park Foundation to the district.