The Sonora Union High School District board of trustees voted Tuesday night to nullify the sale of a portion of the district-owned Wildcat Ranch agricultural property to The Park Foundation, a Sonora non-profit.

Trustee Erik Andal said he made the motion due to mounting legal fees incurred by the civil suit against the district by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau — estimated by Superintendent Mark Miller at more than $70,000.

“The board has to be responsible in weighing the district resources in situations like these and legal costs are one of those,” Andal said.

Three board members — Andal, Kim Norton and Nancy Scott — voted to nullify the purchase and sale agreement, which would have given $1 million to the district over a period of about a year and a half. Board president Jim Riggs voted against and trustee Jeanie Smith was absent.

“I was really hoping we could get all three parties together,” Riggs said of his opposition vote. “No matter what, everybody loses any which way we go.”

The district was sued by the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau this year after the board (then comprised of three outgoing trustees) voted to approve the sale on Dec. 4, 2018.

Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Kevin M. Seibert blocked the sale of 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch, located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road, to The Park Foundation April 12 because he said the district did not comply with the proper public notice requirements required to sell surplus property.

The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau alleged the district violated the Brown Act in their negotiations with The Park Foundation.

The Farm Bureau has sought to nullify the sale because they say the process was not transparent or in compliance with state law. The Farm Bureau also offered to open negotiations on the property on Dec. 4, 2018 when the sale was approved by the Board of Trustees.

Shaun Crook and Sasha Farkas, two members of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau present at the meeting on Tuesday, declined to comment on the vote and said they needed to confer with their attorney, Kelly Aviles.

Prior to the vote, Crook asked the board to consider the students and local taxpayers before they conferenced in a closed session on the legal challenge to the sale of the Wildcat Ranch.

“If we don't get a quick resolution soon, it is going to have to be full steam ahead waiting for the next hearing,” Crook said.

Miller said the next step would be to contact district counsel, who would inform the attorneys for the Park Foundation and the Farm Bureau.

“After that, as far as the legalities are concerned, that’s outside of my area of expertise,” he said.

Park Foundation President Ron Jacobs said in an email the vote was “incomprehensible” considering the financial gain offered to the district. The vote would go down in local history, he said — a loss of more than $2 million from the sale price and shared infrastructure improvements at the site — and potentially hobble the district budget.

“For the last 30-plus years the Wards Ferry Property has been under-developed. The rescission of the sale will only stagnate Sonora High School’s future Ag programs,” Jacobs said.

No members of the The Park Foundation Board of Directors attended Tuesday night.

The Park Foundation planned to build a community park at the location and committed in the sale agreement to updating utilities on the 25 acres retained by the district as well as refurbishing a cross country course which ran through both properties.

Jacobs said the Park Foundation board planned to convene to discuss its next steps.

The Park Foundation planned to build a community park at the location and committed in the sale agreement to updating utilities on the 25 acres retained by the district as well as refurbishing a cross country course which ran through both properties.

Miller said the ranch was his primary focus since his tenure began as superintendent last year. He said he was eager to move past the “distraction” and return to focus on students.

“There are so many other things around education and kids we need to take care of,” he said. “However way we do that, it seems like the right thing to do.”

Scott said she was also driven by the looming legal costs to vote for the nullification, but she lamented the loss of funds, which she said would have been designated for student enrichment.

“It’s just disappointing,” she said, noting the Park Foundation’s positive vision for the site.

Seibert’s injunction blocked a planned deposit of $500,000 from The Park Foundation to the district, set for March 31.

The first case management conference in the litigation was scheduled for June 14.

The board tabled a decision to determine how the district would pay for the legal costs, pending a recommendation from Miller at the June meeting. The payment will be defaulted from the district General Fund before a decision was made. Miller offered three different funds operated by the district as options for recouping the general fund balance.

The approximately 25 people in attendance at the meeting had dwindled to under 10 when the announcement was made following an approximately one hour, 15 minute closed session discussion on the ranch and for a performance evaluation of Miller.

During the board’s previous meeting on April 19, trustee Kim Norton moved to rescind the district’s purchase and sale contract agreement with the Park Foundation. Her motion was not seconded by the other four elected board members. About a dozen members of the public spoke during the April 19 meeting, voicing either opposition or support for the planned sale.

Sonora Dome

Miller requested the board vote during a June meeting to set up a committee which would review a potential sale of the dome property and the looming issue of parking at the site.

“When we get back in September, at that point we could put the committee together and start that process,” Miller said.

Davina Lane, a member of the Historic Dome Preservation Group – a non-profit organization seeking to refurbish the century-old property as a visual arts center with museums, classrooms and galleries – offered to raise funds for repairs on the damaged roof. She said the group was still seeking information from the district related to potential repair costs and operational expenses.

Trustees said they would likely need to review the scope of a repair project to conform with legal requirements, but appeared receptive.

“We seldom turn down dollars when they’re offered to us by a 501(c)(3),” Miller said.

Lane reinforced the necessity of a committee to review the viability of parking surrounding the dome property. There are fewer than 20 parking spaces near the Dome.

“Until that issue is resolved, it’s almost impossible to do anything else,” Lane said.

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

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