Pioneers John Willms and John Kappelmann founded a ranch near Knights Ferry in 1852, first raising horses for mining centers such as Virginia City, Nev., and Bodie, and later switching to cattle.
Now, their descendants propose to break the historic Willms Ranch into 42 parcels, some of which could be converted to diversified agriculture such as olive trees, wheat and livestock pasture, their attorney said Monday.
A tentative map going to the Stanislaus County Planning Commission on Thursday would splinter the scenic 2,384-acre ranch into 40- to 70-acre agricultural parcels connected by private roads.
Under county zoning laws, two homes could be built on each parcel, but the attorney for the ranch owners stressed that no development is planned.
Attorney Barbara Savery of Petrulakis Law & Advocacy in Modesto said dividing the ranch into smaller pieces would give the owners flexibility to develop operations other than raising cattle, which isn't paying so well.
"The family believes some parts of the ranch are suitable for olive trees and also winter wheat," Savery said. The family could obtain loans to repair fences and corrals; fencing certain parcels could allow grazing land to be leased to other ranchers.
In addition, the family could encumber some parcels with the debt, rather than the entire ranch, county staff said.
"The Willms family takes their role as stewards very seriously," Savery said. "They are committed to being good stewards of this ranch."
Willms Ranch, south of Highway 108-120 on the west side of Willms Road, matters to Stanislaus County residents because of its history and its stunning landscape, featuring sheer cliffs and rock piles created by ancient lava flows. There are native mortar and pestle sites on Wildcat Creek, which cuts through the ranch. The land is home to sensitive species and visited by raptors that migrate from Canada and Alaska.
County staff OK with plan
In the 1990s, a proposal to convert 600 acres of the ranch for a golf course sparked a lawsuit from the Stanislaus Audubon Society, which charged that the county acted illegally when it approved the project without an environmental impact report. The plan was scrapped when the courts agreed that an EIR was required.
The county staff recommends approval of the recent parcel map. Assistant Planner Kristin Doud said the applicants are not proposing houses. The plans were submitted in 2006 and were delayed as the family met requirements for a traffic study, plus biological and archaeological studies.
An original map was revised to limit crossings of the Oakdale Irrigation District canal on the property.
Doud said the plan is consistent with zoning policies that maintain a 40-acre minimum size for farming parcels. In the event building permits are taken out for homes, the owners would have to comply with mitigation measures to protect Swainson's hawks, tiger salamanders, American badgers and other species.
Other measures would be triggered to protect plants revered by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.
People with the Stanislaus Audubon Society said they would be concerned if homes were built or the ranch's grasslands were converted to orchards. They said orchards eliminate habitat for raptors and other animals that forage on the land.
"Ranchettes are not good for anyone except the people who have the ranchettes," said David Froba, the society's treasurer. "One of the most pristine areas of Stanislaus County are the grasslands out in the eastern part of the county."
Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill O'Brien said it appears the ranch owners have complied with all county regulations on splitting property in agricultural zones.
"With the 40-acre parcels, I wouldn't think they are home sites," O'Brien said. "There is always concern with ag land getting split up, but I have not heard they have plans to sell them off as home sites."
Despite its history, the ranch does not lie within a designated historical zone. As an example, the county designates Knights Ferry as a historic site zone, which sets parameters and restrictions on what can be built.
Savery said the Willms family is creating a parcel for the Victorian home built in 1892 by John Willms, as well as other old structures, so they won't be disturbed. The six-bedroom house is listed as a California Historical Landmark.
Doud said there's potential for orchards or other crops on part of the sprawling ranch. Today, about 40 acres of the newly created parcels would have access to irrigation water. Applications to the OID would be required to expand irrigation, Doud said.
At the request of the state Department of Transportation, a traffic study was done for the Willms Ranch project in 2007. Although it did not call for improvements at the Highway 108 and Willms Road intersection, the study concluded that it should pay traffic impact fees to the county.
The plan includes easements to give fire engines access to areas of the ranch.
The Stanislaus County Planning Commission meets at 6 p.m. Thursday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, at 1010 10th St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.