Sonora Dome

The Sonora Dome.

The Sonora Lions Club plans to contest a non-binding recommendation from an advisory committee to the Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees that the small Sonora Lions Park at the Cassina High School campus on Barretta Street be declared surplus property as a part of an overall effort to sell the historic Sonora Dome.

The advisory committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve the recommendation, presumably concluding an evaluation of the campus which has lasted over two years. Members of the Lions Club were shocked by the news when contacted by The Union Democrat on Thursday. 

"We have not been contacted,” said Thomas Penhallegon, a member of the Sonora Lions Club. “No one has said anything about it. If we have ownership, we want to hear about it. We want to know what documents turned it over to them. That's what we want to know.”

Jim Gormely, a member of Lions Club for more than 30 years, said the organization donated the park to the district 40 years ago on the condition that it would always be Lions Park. At the time, the land was owned by two members of the club, he said. He estimated the group has spent $40,000 in upkeep and renovation to the park since that time. 

"The Lions Club has put the park together for the use of the community, so we would certainly be objecting to it being sold,” he said. “The reason we made the investment is because the community could use the park.”

The members asserted that ownership of the property by the district was symbolic because of their consistent maintenance work there. 

President Phil Baylis estimated the size of the park at about a half-acre to three-quarters of an acre. He said the nonprofit set the area with a plaque about six to seven years ago to denote the dedication to the district. The park is set with benches, grass, trees, and sandy pits.

Gormley said the plaque includes names of the original members.

The Sonora Lions Club was chartered April 24, 1922 and has 51 members, Baylis said. 

The vote by the committee functions as a recommendation and is non-binding, meaning Sonora Lions Park is not surplus yet. The committee is expected to bring its findings to the district’s board, which will presumably vote on whether to declare the property surplus or not. 

If they do, it will mean the property will be for sale, just like the Sonora Dome and two vacant classroom buildings beside it, which were voted to be surplus by the board in 2018 following another lengthy advisory process.

It has been a foregone conclusion by the district that the evaluation of the campus property, which includes the ballfield and the Sonora Union High School district alternative education campus Cassina High School, included Sonora Lions Park. The advisory committee was formed in 2019 as a potential means of facilitating a sale of the historic, centenarian Sonora Dome, which has languished as unsellable due to meager parking.

Committee member Carl Tucker asked during the meeting if the Lions Club was notified of the decision, but was told that it likely had not been told or included in the process. 

"Have they said anything?" Tucker asked. "I certainly think notification to the Lions Club may not be a legal responsibility, but it is certainly the right thing to do."

Superintendent Ed Pelfrey could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

According to California law, an advisory committee must be convened to evaluate a property before the Board of Trustees can designate all or a portion of it as surplus and open it for sale. 

The declaration of a property as surplus by a legally bound government entity like a school district is the first step in being able to receive bids on the property and enter in sale negotiations. 

Sale negotiations — as many district employees know now following the contentious legal wrangling over the failed sale of the district-owned Wildcat Ranch, costing the district hundreds of thousands in legal fees and penalties — are bound by the Brown Act, a government code which allows for public participation and transparency in government meetings. 

The less than 7-acre dome property includes Cassina High School, a continuation high school for 10th through 12th grades in the Sonora Union High School District, the independent study program Theodore Bird High School and the district adult school.

The Sonora Dome is located on the site and was originally constructed as Sonora Elementary School. It was vacated after a 1967 seismic inspection, was later purchased by the Sonora Union High School District and used as an office until 2010. 

Some groups interested in the dome said Thursday that the decision from the committee did not go far enough.

Allan Zimmerly, president of the Historic Dome Dome Preservation Group, said the sale of the dome was still not viable because the surplus property recommendation of just Lions Park was insufficient to meet parking mandates set by the city. He requested that the committee consider a secondary recommendation to consider the grass sports practice field next to a baseball diamond and below the dome as additional surplus property.

"I think that they have not evaluated the issue correctly,” he said. “To simply say it's being used and therefore not surplus is the wrong approach. It should be evaluated for its efficient use.”

The Historic Dome Preservation Group hoped to restore the dome, utilizing it for art classrooms, gallery space, and performing arts performances. They made six proposals to the committee, and its members spoke in support of the goal. 

Parking additions and renovations to the dome and surrounding property have been estimated at $7 million to $10 million. 

The work of the committee was hampered by an early resignation and disrupted for over half a year by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has had 11 meetings since October of 2019, according to a district agenda page.

Since the committee’s formation, its members have reviewed information from city officials, district officials and evaluated the use of the property surrounding the dome. If a property has a meaningful and legitimate use by students, it cannot be considered surplus and therefore cannot be eligible for sale.

That supposition guided the committee to its eventual decision to not declare the vast majority as surplus, determining that the alternative education site buildings, gym, portables and playing field were being used by Cassina High School, Ted Bird High School, Adult Education and maintenance storage. Additionally, portables and outlying areas of the property are used by KAAD radio, Cable 8, the county Superintendent of Schools office, the UC Master Gardeners exhibition garden, and the Youth Sports Foundation. The Sonora High School girls softball teams, Sonora High School and recreational soccer teams and youth football teams also use the athletic field on the property.

During the discussion on Wednesday, committee member Larry Beil noted the athletic fields were not true surplus because they were used by district sports teams. 

"The practice field is used by Sonora High students, and it's also used by the community," said committee member Donna Berry, noting its use by travel soccer teams, travel softball teams and recreational league practices. "As a parent who has tried to secure practice fields for different sports, I'll tell you how hard it is already." 

The district entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Youth Sports Foundation of Tuolumne County for use of the play field in 2012, with both parties contributing to its renovation. The 10-year agreement lasts through August 2022. 

The District provided a cost analysis of the dome and Cassina High School, suggesting during the meeting that an eventual move of the alternative education campus to the current Sonora High School campus remained an enduring possibility.

As the report was scrolled through on the webinar, Pelfrey said it was intended to determine if a consolidation to the main campus would be possible. 

The values were held to the 2018-19 school years due to COVID-19 convoluting some of the totals, the report said.

The total expenditures of the campus included water and sewer, electricity, maintenance and operations salaries, and transportation, totalling just under $143,000. Revenues from groups renting at the site and a state stipend were projected by the district to be $22,221. 

The report also includes valuations of the various buildings on the campus based on their replacement cost. The Dome building is estimated at approximately $5.5 million, while the two adjacent surplus buildings are more than $600,000 each. The buildings, including classrooms, the gym, portables and sheds, top $3 million.

"I think that moving the campus, moving Cassina and the alternative ed over would free that land for parking and would be a very good solution to the parking problem, but that is speculative, and if it does not happen then the parking problem is not solved," Zimmerly said. 

Beil noted maintenance costs reflected in the report were not necessarily representative of the true burden of the campus, because some projects primarily at the dome were not being completed at this time. 

Additional costs not considered are cleanups from the homeless, vandalism, seasonal landscaping and the aging of the infrastructure, the report said.

The next meeting of the committee is set for 2 p.m. Feb. 24, when the newest recommendation draft to the district board will be reviewed.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.

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