KNIGHTS FERRY -- A wildlife group is appealing a decision early this month that approved a project to divide the historic Willms Ranch near Knights Ferry into smaller parcels.
The Stanislaus Audubon Society filed the paperwork last week to challenge the Dec. 6 decision by the Stanislaus County Planning Commission. The ranch owners want to divide the 2,384-acre ranch into 42 agricultural parcels.
The Audubon Society is concerned that country homes and hobby farms will be built on the 40- to 70-acre parcels, destroying grassland habitat that is important to sensitive bird species.
County planners approved the land division without requiring a full environmental review.
"For the reasons stated in the appeal, we think that they have not followed the (environmental) procedure in a whole number of ways," said David Froba, treasurer of the Audubon Society chapter.
The appeal cited a 2007 letter from the California Department of Conservation, which notes that 40-acre parcels are not large enough to support cattle grazing and most likely would create "hobby farms."
Froba said a biological study for the project made erroneous claims that bald eagles were not present and that the ranch land was not suitable for the species. Although they are no longer on the federal government's threatened species list, bald eagles are listed as endangered in California.
Froba said the eagles are seen on the ranch, located on the west side of Willms Road, south of Highway 108-120.
The ranch owners maintain that dividing the property will generate income from converting some land to crops, such as olives and wheat, and from leasing grazing land to other ranchers. Barbara Savery, an attorney for the owners, has said they need financing to replace fences and make other ranch improvements.
"The intent is ag financing," said Shirley Willms McPhee, the great-granddaughter of the ranch's co-founder. She declined to comment on the appeal this week.
Froba said he expects the county Board of Supervisors will consider the project and the appeal in late January.
Willms Ranch was founded in 1852 by pioneers John Willms and John Kappelmann, who raised horses they drove over the mountains to market in Bodie and Virginia City, Nev. The site has been a cattle ranch for most of its 160 years.
In the 1990s, a proposal for a golf course on 600 acres of the ranch sparked a lawsuit by the Stanislaus Audubon Society. The plaintiffs charged that the county acted illegally when it approved the golf course without an environmental impact report. The owners scrapped the project after the courts ruled an environmental study was required.
Under county zoning laws, two homes could be built on each parcel if the ranch property is divided. At the Dec. 6 hearing, planning commissioners defended the parcel map and said the owners can do what they want with the ranch.
County staff has said any building applications will trigger mitigation measures to protect sensitive species such as Swainson's hawks and burrowing owls.
In its appeal letter, the Audubon Society took issue with a biological study that claims the parcel map would result in no significant habitat loss for 18 "special status" species believed to live on the ranch.
The wildlife group said more than a dozen bird species rely on the grasslands. Willms Ranch "comprises about 3 percent of the grasslands habitat in Stanislaus County" and losing that habitat would be significant, the appeal letter says.
The group also suggested the project would put more farming equipment on Highway 108-120 and result in vehicles making dangerous left turns from the highway onto Willms Road.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.