MODESTO — Stanislaus County planners took a staunch property rights stance Thursday in approving a plan to break up the Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry into 42 parcels.
After sparring with wildlife advocates from the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, planning commissioners voted 9-0 to approve dividing the 2,384 acres into 40- to 70-acre agricultural parcels. County zoning laws allow two homes to be built on each parcel, though the ranch owners say they have no plans to sell homes for rural estates.
"This is nothing more than a plan to bring in 80 ranchettes," said Brad Barker, conservation chairman of the Yokuts Group of the Sierra Club. He said farmland groups and policy-makers generally agree that dividing ag land for ranchettes is horrible policy.
Commissioner Robert Crabtree countered that he didn't regard 40-acre parcels as ranchettes. Other commission members said during the hearing that they intended to vote "yes."
"I am a believer in individual property rights," said Commissioner Ronald Peterson, adding that any public comments regarding how the owners should use their property were offensive to him.
Commissioner Kenneth Buehner, a landlord from Patterson, said the demand for housing grows with the population. "Unless you are going to sterilize the population so they can't reproduce, what are you going to do?" he asked.
Housing could be built in more suitable locations, replied Dave Froba, treasurer of the Stanislaus Audubon Society.
There are a number of reasons why some people consider historic Willms Ranch a treasure worth preserving. One of the county's oldest businesses, it dates to 1852, when John Willms and John Kappelmann founded the ranch to raise horses. They later shifted to cattle.
The ranch on Willms Road, near "Lovers Leap" on Highway 108-120, is regarded for its natural beauty. In addition, the grasslands of eastern Stanislaus County are habitat for Swainson's hawk, burrowing owls and other species, advocates said Thursday.
In the 1990s, county approval of a 600-acre golf course on the ranch sparked a lawsuit from the Stanislaus Audubon Society, whose attorneys successfully argued in the courts that the county should have required an environment impact report. Family members scrapped the project because of the costs for an EIR.
Attorney Barbara Savery, representing the Willms family and other owners, insisted the property was being divided to raise financing for ranch improvements. The owners have talked with people who may want to plant olive trees; other parts of the ranch could be leased for cattle grazing, Savery has said.
The attorney said the state Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were satisfied with proposed mitigation measures. Anyone applying for permits for home building or wells will have to conduct surveys and take other steps to protect sensitive species.
Barker countered that a full environmental review should be required. Froba added that planners were not considering issues such as an increase in farm vehicles that will make an "extremely dangerous left turn" from westbound Highway 108 to Willms Road.
Commissioner Annabel Gammon expressed doubt that mitigation measures would protect wildlife, if the ranch land is converted to orchards or home sites.
Peterson asked if any land conservancy groups had approached the owners about helping maintain the ranch as a resource. Savery said no groups had talked with the family.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.